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A Homeless Bill of Rights for New York City?

From a rooftop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, I watch the Macy’s fireworks display, blossoming in triumphant clouds of red over the outstretched hand of Lady Liberty. Beyond her, the newborn Freedom Tower glows giddily against the Manhattan skyline like a Neapolitan popsicle stick, a “dropped pin” on the Google map of the land of the free, indicating the exact coordinates of the home of the brave.

Meanwhile, down in the shady streets of the city, an estimated 50,000 people are spending another night homeless, counted among the shadows of the freely roaming rats and very brave pigeons.

For being the financial center of the wealthiest country in the world, New York City has an inordinately large population of homeless people — 7.86% of the entire homeless population in the United States. Over 43,000 people are sleeping in New York’s municipal shelter system on any given night, while thousands more are sleeping in the streets, according to the homeless advocacy and outreach organization Coalition for the Homeless. Of the 113,000 different homeless people who go through the city’s shelter system every year, 40,000 are children. Families lacking access to affordable housing comprise nearly three-quarters of the city’s shelter population. Homeless children and adults are much more likely than the average population to acquire some form of mental or physical illness. As their health conditions quickly worsen with rough experiences on the streets, many of them become chronically homeless

That’s why Mayor Bloomberg’s recent ban against donating food to homeless shelters – under the implausible, or at least eccentric, rationale that “it’s impossible to gauge the salt, fiber, and other nutritional content of donated foods” – seems to be one more spitball at a population that faces increased risks of perpetual homelessness during the economic downturn.

This year, from New York to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, Denver, Atlanta, and St. Louis, numerous “Acts of Living” bills have passed that criminalize being or helping the homeless. Crimes include sleeping in public spaces (San Francisco) or giving food to the homeless without a license (Philadelphia.) Partially in reaction to the Occupy Movement this year, more than 50 cities have adopted laws to make it illegal to sleep, sit, beg, or share food in public areas.

In response to all of this, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee has just signed the first Homeless Bill of Rights, which affirms that homeless people have equal rights to use public resources such as parks, sidewalks, emergency medical care, and the voting booth; the bill also defends them against discrimination by police, health care workers, landlords, and employers.

I wonder why it was necessary for Rhode Island to create this special "Bill of Rights" for the homeless, since these are rights that they should already have. Does the Constitution not apply equally to all equally-created people of the United States? Why is there a growing trend towards criminalizing homelessness in the middle of a recession? Has increasing risk of poverty made the visibility of the poor even more dangerous? Why while pursuing our life, liberty, and happiness (or property, in the words of John Locke), do Americans find it necessary to also send our police in pursuit of those who do not have equal access to these things, which are supposedly guaranteed in this country?

The real goal of passing these laws was “not to litigate” but “to change behavior and to educate people about a vulnerable class of people,” said Jim Rycek, Director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. There have been 1,184 cases of violence against homeless people in the U.S. since 1999. It’s time to send a message to American citizens that violence towards homeless people is unacceptable.

We should also consider what else a special "Bill of Rights" implies. By creating a separate “Bill of Rights” for a special class of people – the way human rights conventions for particularly vulnerable groups have been proliferating in the last two decades at the United Nations – the law also reaffirms a sense of permanence in their existence as a special class of people. But housing status is not like one’s race, gender, or sexual orientation – it is not a permanent category, and I don’t think it should be protected in the same way. Many magazines in these last two weeks, including Mother Jones and Al Jazeera, have been heaping praise onto Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights, urging other states to adopt the same law. But I can’t help wondering if it’s more gloss than substance. 

Though as a formerly homeless adolescent, I think it would be nice for New York City to also adopt some sort of Homeless Manifesto of Non-abuse (Basic Decency), I would prefer that the policy take an economic or budgetary approach, rather than offer civil legislation. The main obstacle to solving the problem of homelessness in the wealthiest nation of the world is the lack of affordable housing and supportive housing.

According to a report on average wages and housing costs in the U.S., there is a shameful mismatch among the cost of living in this country, the availability of rental assistance, and the average wages that people earn. Calculating the Fair Market Rent of a two-bedroom housing unit ($949 nationally) assuming no more than 30% is spent on one's income , the NLIC reports that the average hourly wage of renters ($14.15) falls below the wage needed ($18.25) to afford rent. Ranking the most expensive (Hawaii, District of Columbia, and California) to least expensive (Puerto Rico, Arkansas, and West Virginia) states, the report indicates that the average renter needs to work 149 hours a week in Hawaii or 55 hours a week in Puerto Rico in order to afford Fair Market Rent. There exists no state in this country in which an average renter working a standard 40-hour week can afford Fair Market Rent.

In spite of the recession, the number of units of affordable housing in the U.S. has actually decreased by 150,000 homes in the last 15 years. The falling rate of home ownership means more competition for rental apartments, as 470,000 new renters have entered the market since 2007. According to the NLIC, the number of people falling under the category of “Extremely Low Income” (those earning 30% or less of the Area Median Income), has jumped by 900,000 between 2007 and 2010

The poor are hit hardest by the competition for rental housing. As more members of the middle class give up their mis-mortgaged homes and take on rental apartments, the Extremely Low Income poor are being pushed out of the rental housing market. According to the most recent census data, the bottom fifth suffered an income decline of 11.3% between 2007 and 2010, whereas the top fifth saw losses of 4.5%. Currently, one out of every four rental households in the United States can be classified as Extremely Low Income.

The best solution for chronic homelessness, particularly for the mentally ill, substance-abusing, or physically disabled, is to create permanent supportive housing. The chronically homeless account for over 50% of national service dollars spent on the homeless. Providing these people with supportive housing is more cost-effective than forcing them to move among the emergency shelter system, hospitals, prisons, and streets. The Rhode Island Housing First program for the chronically homeless has seen a 90% success rate since 2006, and an average yearly public cost savings of $7,946 per person in supportive housing. This proves that supportive housing is a cost-saving solution, rather than a drain on public money.

The expansion of affordable housing across the country should be a national priority this election year. Obama has invested $4 billion in urgent public housing repairs through the Recovery Act and has brought 1.2 million people out of homelessness. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit also helped relieve competitive pressure on the rental market.

However, much more can be done in the coming years to serve the growing needs of Extremely Low Income Americans. Housing is a basic human necessity, without which it is nearly impossible to hold a job or be a productive member of society. How we treat the most vulnerable people in our society, particularly those with mental illness and physical disability, is a testament to the character of our nation.

Though Rhode Island’s new legislation may be helpful for raising awareness of the problems that homeless people face on a daily basis, it is not the best solution for alleviating the sufferings of the Extremely Low Income people in our society. By creating a special “Homeless” Bill of Rights, the state is in effect affirming the ongoing existence of homelessness, which seems to imply a different legal category of being than you or I. What I would like to see instead is efforts towards eliminating homelessness altogether.

Investing in more affordable homes for the poor, creating more supportive housing for the disabled, and improving programs that help people stay in their homes will help reduce homelessness for good. We should stop relying on emergency shelters or more laws affirming the rights that we should already have. This year, we need to ask ourselves why the minimum wage is not a living wage, and why 40 hours a week is never enough in this rich country of great inequality.

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