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The Legal Right to Shelter Shouldn’t Become a Legal Obligation for the Homeless

In the Los Angeles Times in July 2019, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg called for a “right to shelter” legislation in California and an obligation for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness to accept offered shelter. While I can agree with the first part of this appeal–that having a roof over our head should be a legal right–how does it become a legal obligation?


Firstly, it is essential for us to understand the reason why this “right to shelter” proposal was put forward in the United States. The “right to housing,” a term similar to the “right to shelter,” is a recognized human right by international law. It was first introduced to the United States by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. Nevertheless, providing permanent housing is a costly task that can take too long. Some politicians also need a solution to homelessness that can quickly take effect before their election. Thus, the “right to shelter” comes in as a short-term fix. 


Mayor Steinberg once pointed out, “There is no liberty in dying alone on the street.” With the same idea, many cities in California have started to have shelters that promise to offer service-rich housing hubs, such as the Navigation Centers in San Francisco, the Bridge Housing in Los Angeles and the Rehousing Shelters in Sacramento. Therefore, although Mayor Steinberg’s “right to shelter” legislation proposal has been halted, it is very likely to come back to California soon.  


I agree that the “right to shelter,” as an alternative to the “right to housing,” does help homeless people exercise their right to a roof. However, having a right does not mean that there is an obligation to exercise that right. In turn, the problem is not that the “right to shelter” is being introduced, but that a mandate on the right to shelter is being proposed.


I just do not see how the state’s “right to shelter” mandate can be enforced in California, a place where both civil commitments and forced treatment for mentally ill people are fiercely restricted by laws. Instead, I want to argue that there should be other ways to help the homeless community besides just putting them into temporary shelters. 


In fact, according to people experiencing homelessness, some of them would rather live in their cars alone to avoid being sent to shelters that are notorious for theft. If a legal right to shelter comes into place, will these people be criminally prosecuted? Will police be sent out to arrest people refusing shelter? Who will be the public defenders representing them? 


A homeless individual - even when he or she is facing the challenge of living - should still have the right to refuse shelter. No matter if it is the “right to housing” or the “right to shelter,” the shared key spirit of both these two concepts is that this human right is based on the inherent dignity of the individual. Hence, calling for an obligation for the homeless to accept whatever is offered is violating this basic spirit. 


Therefore, building more temporary shelters will not only divert a lot of social resources to unnecessary burdens brought up by this “right to shelter” mandate, but it will also run counter to the initial purpose of paying attention to this human right. All in all, a “right to shelter” mandate should not be the only solution adopted by California.


(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author, whose information can be found below.)

To see all sources consulted/reviewed/interviewed for the purposes of writing this article and/or to learn more about this article's author, Sijia Zhong, click here.

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