NYC enacts 'Homeless Bill of Rights,' but doubts arise over key provisions such as right to shelter

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NEW YORK (AP) — New York Mayor Eric Adams allowed a “Homeless Bill of Rights” to become law over the weekend, 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. Most city parks close at 1 a.m. And people can’t generally sleep on privately owned property.

The law also 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 main sponsor of the Homeless Bill of Rights, New York City’s elected public advocate, Jumaane Williams, said the measure was necessary to let people in the shelter system know they are entitled to fair and respectful treatment.

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 U.S. 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.

Adams, a Democrat, also recently asked a judge to temporarily relieve the city of a decades-old, court-imposed 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, including Williams, who said it could lead to more people sleeping outside.

“In meeting this moment and its very real urgency and scope, we should not be focusing efforts on removing the rights of the most marginalized,” Williams said in a statement last week.

Advocates for the homeless have been critical of the mayor's approach to homelessness, which has periodically included sweeps of outdoor encampments and subway spaces.