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New York City Enacts 'Homeless Bill of Rights'

A new law reaffirms New Yorkers' right to sleep outdoors, with restrictions
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 31, 2023 2:46 PM CDT
New York City Enacts 'Homeless Bill of Rights'
Sotero Cirilo stands near the tent where he sleeps next to other homeless people in the Queens borough of New York.   (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

New York Mayor Eric Adams allowed a “Homeless Bill of Rights” to become law over the weekend, reports the AP, a step supporters say will strengthen legal protections for the unhoused in a city struggling with a record number of people in its shelter system. The measure passed the City Council with bipartisan support in April as city shelters were swelled beyond capacity by the arrival of 70,000 international migrants since last spring. Among other things, the new law acknowledges the explicit right to sleep outdoors in public places—though not anyplace they like. New York City has other laws in place that could limit where outside the unhoused can sleep.

Police can clear sidewalks and streets of anyone who impedes the flow of traffic. And people can’t generally sleep on privately owned property. The law gives people the right to complain about shelter accommodations without repercussion and includes safeguards to prevent a person from being assigned to spaces that don't correspond to their gender identity. It also gives people the right to apply for rental assistance and requires parents staying in shelters be given diapers for their babies. The new law also reiterates that New Yorkers have a right to shelter, a mandate in place since 1981 when a court ordered the city to provide temporary housing to anyone who asks for it.

Meeting that obligation has been an enormous struggle for New York City as the shelter system is being overtaxed by migrants who streamed across the US southern border over the past year. The city’s Department of Homeless Services is currently sheltering some 81,000 people—not including the thousands more housed by other agencies, such as those escaping domestic violence. To make more room, the city has rented out entire hotels and found temporary accommodations in nearby counties.

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Adams, a Democrat, recently asked a judge to temporarily relieve the city of the legal obligation to provide shelter for anyone who needs it. The mayor said the city wasn’t seeking to end New Yorkers’ unique “right to shelter,” only a suspension of the obligation to provide housing during times when its shelter system is overwhelmed. That proposed relaxation of the shelter rules drew protests from advocates for homeless people, who have been critical of the mayor's approach to homelessness, which has periodically included sweeps of outdoor encampments and subway spaces. (More NYC stories.)

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