Sacramento’s Mayor Darrell Steinberg has a big problem. The homeless population in his city is growing faster than bureaucrats can get people the help they need.
So Steinberg hit upon a novel scheme; Why not legally require his city to supply shelter to the homeless? He wants to force city politicians to do what they should be doing anyway: addressing the critical need for sheltering the homeless.
Of course, putting a gun to the city council’s head to force it to take money from other critical services to house every homeless person in Sacramento might seem a little draconian. After all, many homeless people refuse shelter. What happens to them?
Steinberg proposes a parallel “obligation” for the homeless to accept shelter if it is offered. However, one advocate, Eric Tars, the legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center in Washington, D.C., says that’s wrong: “The right to housing is based on the inherent dignity of the individual, so a straightforward obligation to accept whatever is offered undermines that.”
If passed by the City Council, the measure would be the first of its kind nationally, and would impose a legally enforceable municipal mandate to deal with a humanitarian crisis that has spread in California as the state’s median home value has soared and rents have exploded. It could also help the city comply with federal court rulings, such as those in Los Angeles and Boise, Idaho, that have made it increasingly difficult to enforce laws against homeless encampments if officials do not provide alternatives to sleeping outdoors.
A “right to housing” mandate has been long sought by progressives, who argue that public funding and compassion are wasted without the power of law to force cities to supply adequate housing. At the same time, state and local governments have been leery of the financial implications of singling out housing as a legal right.
A “right to housing” could mean many things and result in unintended consequences for the city government and the homeless.
Many homeless people decline shelter because they are mentally ill and have lost touch with reality. Forcing people into shelters is very close to involuntary confinement and would likely be challenged by advocates for the mentally ill.
That’s only one reason the “right to housing” is impractical.
“It is far past time to address the root of this dysfunction rather than the symptoms,” Steinberg said. “Name another area of major public concern where everything government does is optional.”
The right-to-housing movement, which dates to the New Deal, has drawn particular attention since 2018, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down laws against homeless camping, finding that it was cruel and unusual punishment to prosecute people for sleeping outside if appropriate shelter was unavailable.
That decision, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, greatly limited the enforcement options available to local governments to deal with encampments of homeless people, which during the pandemic have spread to cover parks, sidewalks, freeway underpasses and beaches in many California cities.
All the billions of dollars that the state of California and local governments have thrown at the homeless problem boil down to one thing: an inability to see past a pure government solution and embrace a public-private partnership that would be able to build affordable housing and rental units more efficiently and cost-effectively than the government could do alone. It won’t solve the immediate crisis, but it would begin a process back to sanity for the housing market.
The “right to housing” is meaningless. As long as the right to refuse mental health treatment is on the books, the homeless will be with us.