If we start with the premise that housing is a basic human right we cannot accept homelessness. It's simple. And yet not one municipality in the country considers permanent housing a human right.
New York City is going through a humanitarian crisis with more than 60,000 people staying in municipal homeless shelters each night. In addition, countless others experience housing instability but are not counted in the official homelessness figures because they're not logged by a city agency. They crash with friends, family, acquaintances and strangers or they sleep on the street or the subway or church steps.
But it could be worse. New York City, at the very least, provides shelter to anyone who needs it. It is the only municipality in the country that guarantees shelter to anyone in need based on a 1979 ruling known as Callahan v. Carey, after the lead plaintiff - a homeless man - and the then-governor of New York.
Seattle is also experiencing its own homeless crisis right now. More than 12,700 people live on the streets, in cars, in dangerous encampments or in shelters. A study conducted by Zillow rates Seattle as having the third highest homeless population in the country after only New York and Los Angeles. Seattle is more than ten-times smaller than New York.
Moon said she does support a mandate. Durkan proposes 700 new shelter beds but said she does not support a legal right to shelter.
The effect, she said in a statement, would be “diverting millions of dollars in scarce resources to warehousing people experiencing homelessness in sometimes degrading shelters rather than providing people the housing they need to permanently exit homelessness."
I hear what she's saying - shelters are notoriously nasty and potentially dangerous. But why do they have to be?
More importantly, why build and guarantee shelters when we can build and guarantee housing?
We severely limit our thinking and capacity for innovation when it comes to homelessness, here in New York City and across the country in Seattle. We allow shelters to remain dirty and dangerous, even as families with children comprise the majority of the homeless population.
We say the city doesn't have enough money to build affordable housing for the homeless, but we don't seem to analyze whether that's true. Or what it would take to build housing. We dismiss the idea as unrealistic — it's not. We just don't have the will to accomplish it.
We point to NYCHA and say city-operated housing is inevitably crappy and unsafe. But it doesn't have to be. We don't have the will to fix and maintain public housing.
We need to expand our thinking and consider how the city can compel private developers to build truly affordable housing. Or how the city can build the housing itself.
Expanding our minds also means that we cannot accept subhuman conditions for people in homeless shelters as though it's a natural phenomenon.
Homelessness is not natural; it's a human-made crisis. One that we could address immediately — if only we had the will to.
But right now, it's news when a long shot candidate in Seattle musters the will to pledge temporary shelter for all.