With nearly nine million residents, New York City is tight on housing. That causes America’s largest metropolis to grapple with an unusual legal dilemma: NYC is required by law to provide emergency housing to everyone with need. But as a migrant influx overwhelms city shelters, some officials rethink that mandate.
Homelessness is a problem in many U.S. cities. New York City, Los Angeles, Portland, and Denver all have staggering homeless numbers. But only one big city in America has a “right to shelter” legal requirement.
Right to shelter is the concept that everyone should have freedom from homelessness.
NYC received more than 116,000 migrants in the last year. Many fled hardship in their home countries. Most came without lodging or jobs lined up. NYC’s right-to-shelter agreement obliges the city to provide temporary housing for every one of them. Officials estimate costs over the next few years could reach $12 billion.
The Big Apple has tried to change some right-to-shelter rules. For example, officials imposed new limits on how long people can stay in city-run facilities.
In October 2023, NYC Mayor Eric Adams asked a court for permission to suspend the right-to-shelter mandate in some cases. Those include times when the number of single adults seeking shelter increases rapidly—as happens with large migrant influxes.
NY Governor Kathy Hochul supports suspending right to shelter. She contends the directive was never meant to apply to an international crisis. “I don’t know how the right to shelter . . . can or should be interpreted to be an open invitation to eight billion people who live on this planet, that if you show up in the streets of New York, that the city of New York has an obligation to provide you with a hotel room or shelter,” Hochul says.
Dave Giffen is executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless. He sees homeless numbers rising. His group says 86,510 people slept in NYC shelters in August 2023.
Giffen has concerns about the city’s request to suspend the mandate. He says, “If the mayor and governor get their way, they will be closing the door of the shelter system to thousands of people without homes, leaving them nowhere to sleep but the streets.”
Mayor Adams says his city “has made every effort to continue serving” incoming migrants. But he says with 300-500 people arriving and expecting shelter every day, “New York City is full.”
Homelessness seems an impossible problem, humanly speaking. Just as the poor will always be among us, (Mark 14:7) it’s likely homelessness will also endure on Earth. Christians take comfort that Jesus promises an everlasting home for those who trust Him. (John 14:2-3)
Why? As governments tackle economic and social problems, it’s helpful to remember that policies can have unintended costs and consequences, especially when circumstances change.