Opinion: A call to action to solve New York’s criminalization of homelessness

The way out of this crisis is to codify a right to housing.

Die-in demonstration by organizers and housing advocates on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court as oral arguments are heard in Grants Pass v. Johnson on April 22, 2024.

Die-in demonstration by organizers and housing advocates on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court as oral arguments are heard in Grants Pass v. Johnson on April 22, 2024. Rob Robinson

On April 22nd, as our nation’s highest court heard oral arguments in the case of Grants Pass v. Johnson, the rallying chorus of “Housing not Handcuffs” outside its marble pillars marked a symbolic moment of public visibility for the national housing justice movement. We organized with others from around the country – many of whom have experienced the trauma of homelessness. We were heartened by solidarity actions in other cities and towns that opposed throwing people in jail because they lack safe and affordable housing.

We cannot understate Grants Pass’ legal significance. This case will decide whether it is cruel and unusual to arrest someone for sleeping with as little as a blanket when they lack available housing or shelter. But wherever the court lands, ending homelessness demands a broader recognition of its root causes and the implementation of systemic, comprehensive policy solutions towards the human right to housing.  

For far too long, unsheltered New Yorkers have risked jail time, fines they are unable to pay (triggering arrest warrants), or a verbal command by police officers to “move on” – simply because they appear to be homeless. Mayor Adams’ agenda has only made this problem worse, as he doubles down on police resources to target New Yorkers visibly without housing. Mayor Adams has enacted policies authorizing hundreds of weekly raids of homeless encampments and the forced street removals of people experiencing homelessness with perceived mental disabilities. He has made significant, shortsighted programmatic cuts to the city Housing Preservation and Development budget, along with cuts to critical social services, and asylum seeker spending.

New Yorkers have a right to shelter, but shelters do not solve what is fundamentally a housing crisis. Yet we should not close shelters without making sure that all New Yorkers can access housing that is truly affordable. We have the resources to solve our city’s housing crisis. New York City spends billions each year to manage, rather than solve, homelessness. The cost of shelters, jails, and caring for the inevitable health complications of people experiencing homelessness, as well as the lack of stable educational infrastructure for unhoused youth, all exact a human and financial cost. As of the end of December 2023, there were approximately 123,000 New Yorkers warehoused in the city’s shelter systems. This count is 75% higher than it was 10 years ago due to the rising costs of housing overall.

Rents have hit record highs in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, and the eviction crisis in the Bronx ranks the worst in the city. Thousands of asylum seekers and their families are being evicted from shelters, the result of a cruel, inhumane city policy that restricts the right to shelter. What all New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and housing precarity – including an estimated 200,000 people doubled up in the homes of others – have in common is extreme poverty. Conditions of poverty are deeply intertwined with race and the harms caused by discriminatory policing. It should not come as a surprise that the majority of New Yorkers losing their homes are Black and Latinx – including a sizable demographic of single parents with children – and that broken windows policing reinforces racist, classist ideologies about Black and brown communities. It is pathologizing them as perpetrators of social disorder rather than framing homelessness as the logical result of a profit-based housing market. 

How can we tout a “City of Yes” initiative when our city, state and federal administrations are failing to address the housing needs of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers? The way out of the housing crisis is to codify a right to housing. This would force our local, state, and federal leaders to end the crisis of evictions and displacement as well as preserving and creating new units of deeply affordable housing. New Yorkers have already organized and won Right to Counsel and Rent Stabilization, but these victories must be defended, expanded and fully funded. Policy changes around ending the warehousing of vacant buildings and apartments in order to increase the supply of deeply affordable housing are currently being contested. Meanwhile, a proposed social housing model for New York would decommodify land and housing and create a pipeline of city-owned property for non-profit developers and community land trusts. By restoring federal funding for affordable housing and redirecting state and city funds, we can shift to valuing people over profit, and housing over handcuffs. 

The lack of housing and resultant criminalization of unhoused people are two wings of the same bird. Even in a post-Grants Pass world, continuing to criminalize people without housing while we ignore the impact of the housing crisis hurts us all. The Progressive Caucus of our City Council has called for an additional $3.6B in affordable housing funds in its “Homes Now, Homes for Generations” campaign, and readopted a key rental housing voucher program last summer. These policies are steps in the right direction, but we need all levels of government to muster the political will to prioritize housing justice for all New Yorkers and recognize that housing is a human right. 

Lynn Lewis is an organizer, educator and oral historian and has experienced homelessness, and is grateful as a rent stabilized tenant to have deeply affordable housing. Rob Robinson is a Special Advisor with Partners for Dignity and Rights. He is an adjunct professor of Urbanism at New School University. He spent 2 ½ years homeless in Miami and 10 months in a New York City homeless shelter. Siya Hegde is a human rights lawyer, writer, and abolitionist at the National Homelessness Law Center. She was a former public defender at The Bronx Defenders.

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