‘Right to shelter’ laws, which would make cities unable to turn away anyone seeking shelter for the night, are likely making a return in the halls of the state Capitol Building.
Failure of past proposals
In previous years, any talk of ‘right to shelter’ has been quickly talked down.
“California’s housing crisis, along with our mental health and addiction challenges, are driving people into homelessness, and we must act,” stated Senator Wiener last year. “We must do more to ensure homeless people have access to shelter, as a way to stabilize people’s lives and help them transition to permanent housing.”
While it passed a few Senate subcommittees, the bill was bogged down by amendments and widespread criticism over its effectiveness in getting people out of homelessness and was quickly suspended in May.
Then in July Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg proposed ‘right to shelter’ laws and worked with lawmakers in Los Angeles to make it a statewide measure. However, an outpouring of criticism, both from right and left leaning people and groups, quickly killed the plans. Homeless advocates noted that many homeless people could not use shelters due to past traumas or were afraid of violent incidents in a shelter. Some homeless people contended they were safer living in a car alone because shelters have been notorious for thefts. Many politicians pointed out the high costs some cities would have to pay for an adequate number of shelters, with some smaller towns lacking the resources or any temporary shelter. Even Governor Gavin Newsom criticized the plan.
San Francisco’s failed ‘right to shelter’ laws of the 1980’s
An increase in affordable housing has been widely seen as the way to go, with cheap housing bringing non-chronic homeless off the streets, freeing shelter space and homeless resources for those who cannot get out of homelessness easily. While some cities have been fighting more housing developments, most lawmakers and local leaders have generally supported more affordable housing.
There are also lingering memories of prior ‘right to shelter’ laws that failed terribly in California.
“San Francisco already tried something like this,” said San Francisco housing advocate Carl Myers. “In the 80’s San Francisco received a huge influx of people, and Mayor [and future U.S. Senator Dianne] Feinstein only approved temporary shelters for everyone. No money was put into cheaper permanent housing, so the city was stuck with a growing homeless issue.”
“Reagan also reduced the number of psychological asylums, so we ended up with a large wave of them too.* So all we had was shelter space, not permanent places for them. And it took years for us to get out. And now they want this on a statewide level.”
“The crazy thing is that [state Senator] Wiener is from here. He should know this. He should know how a lot of San Francisco was filled with homeless people back then. He should know the terrible mistakes of Feinstein. But apparently not.”
Right to shelter possibilities in 2020
For this coming session ‘right to shelter’ can be coming back in several ways. A renewed or altered SB 48 could make a return – as it’s only suspended it’s very possible. A new bill incorporating right to shelter as part of a larger set of new homeless laws has been hinted at by several lawmakers. And many cities may decide to enact laws similar to San Francisco’s 1980’s policy or Mayor Steinberg’s more recent proposal.
“There’s a lot that may happen,” explained Carl. “Senator Wiener is still very interested in this, as are many other lawmakers both here, in LA and in Sacramento who see this as a quick, short-term fix. If you go long-term with slowly improving places for low-income people, politicians may not survive that long in elections to boast about it. In quick shelters, they can point to the homelessness drop before an election. Or before an election to a higher office
So we’ll see something new about it soon. Someone from one of the major cities will have it in bill form ready to go on the floor before March, like always.
Until homelessness is significantly reduced, we’re just going to keep seeing these bills come up every time. You can almost predict it now.”
*The frequent claim that Reagan reduced the number of psychological asylums was actually done under the final Executive Order from President John F. Kennedy in 1962 in an attempt to reorient asylum residents into localized group homes. Reagan did not do this as President; this was done when he was Governor of California (1967-1975).