Right to Shelter Needed in California

Holly Wertman

New York and California are states of deep contradiction, both housing some of the nation’s most wealthy and also a sizeable proportion of the poorest. According to recent counts, California and New York have the largest homeless populations in the United States with 161,548 and 91,271 people respectively. The combined total represents more than 40% of the country’s entire homeless population, concentrated in Los Angeles (LA) and New York City (NYC). These states have each addressed the issue in incomplete and entirely divergent ways, with New York adopting more human rights-based strategies that, as years pass, it becomes clearer California has an obligation to replicate.

As the epidemic of homelessness first rose in the 1980s, the New York State Supreme Court effectively ordered the provision of shelter and board to all homeless men, women, children, and families in NYC and outlined the minimum standards for facilities. This established New York’s longstanding Right to Shelter mandate. Meanwhile, LA concentrated its resources on containing the homeless population in a circumscribed downtown “Skid Row” and relied on faith-based organizations to provide support. Today, the 50-city-block area sees thousands of unhoused residents sleep on its streets and overcrowded shelters on any given night and has drawn international attention to its unacceptable standards of living. In 2018, the area was the subject of a report from the UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty for failing to meet even the minimum hygiene standards of refugee camps.

About 70% of California’s homeless population is unsheltered, meaning that they are sleeping in places not intended for habitation. This is more than in any other state and leads to extreme hygiene violations and health hazards. Although California weather is temperate, the homeless population remains extremely vulnerable to weather impacts due in part to higher risks of underlying health conditions. In 2021 alone, more homeless people died from the cold in LA than in San Francisco and NYC combined. Despite this, advocacy and lawsuits have resulted in promises to provide shelter for only 60% of the homeless population in the next five years.

Globally, outside of the United States, housing has become increasingly recognized as a human right. Homelessness violates the principles of dignity protected in Articles 1 and 22 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) also ensures the right to an adequate standard of living and the highest attainable standard of health, both impossible under the conditions of homelessness. Since the United States has not ratified the ICESCR, advocates have pointed to the violation of rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, arguing the criminalization of homelessness constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that interferes with the rights to life, of family, education, to vote, and non-discrimination based on gender, property, or other status.

In 2009, a UN report by the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance specifically highlighted Skid Row as a discriminatory housing practice. Since then, some countries have adopted constitutional rights to housing, which do not “fix” the issue of homelessness but have led to improved housing conditions and expanded shelter coverage. Constitutional rights also provide a basis for advocacy when rights are violated. The constitutional right to adequate housing for all people in California is currently being considered through the California Assembly Constitutional Amendment 10 (ACA-10) which would ensure funds are allocated to ensure a safe, legal place to rest for all.

Opponents question the feasibility of upholding a right to shelter law, especially as an unprecedented wave of migrants overwhelms the system and threatens to undermine existing protections in NYC. However, it is precisely the fears over the violation of the right to shelter mandate that has spurred decisive government action, such as the creation of temporary asylum welcome centers. While the enforcement of the law is difficult to ensure, the constitutional enshrining of the right to housing leads to the allocation of resources to avoid the threat of legal prosecution if the mandate is not upheld. It provides legal incentive for governments to protect their most vulnerable.

California residents should push their legislators to support ACA-10. While far from fixing the issue, this amendment could serve as a basis for advocacy and allocating more funding toward affordable housing development. Those outside California can also hold their governments accountable to human rights standards by using tools created by housing activists, such as the right to housing report card, which reminds governments that they have an obligation to grant their constituents dignity and health.

Holly Wertman (she/her) is a Masters graduate of the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and Director of Growing Strong, a direct cash grant program for unhoused mothers, at Win NYC, United States.