08/22/2012 11:58 am ET Updated Oct 22, 2012

A Fair and Practical Right to Shelter

It has been almost 30 years since New York City established the right to shelter for homeless families. While this right was decreed to guarantee that no New York City family would be left to fend for themselves on the street, it has now become a national and, in some cases, an international magnet for non-New Yorkers. Today, almost 10 percent of all families sheltered by the city come from places other than New York, and there has been a 48 percent increase in their numbers in recent years. Families from places without a right to shelter, and where services for the homeless are limited or nonexistent, now travel hundreds if not thousands of miles to receive shelter services in New York. This was never the intent of the right to shelter decree. While eligible homeless families with children should never be denied shelter in New York City, should the city serve every family seeking shelter regardless of where they come from? I suggest not.

There are practical reasons why the city cannot function as the social safety net to the nation. First, the city's shelter system is at capacity. Each day it houses almost 44,000 individuals, including more than 11,000 families and 18,000 children. There are more people living in New York City's shelter system than in the city of Hoboken, New Jersey. It is nothing short of a Herculean effort to shelter a small city within a large city each day. Second, most families have serious hurdles to overcome; issues that must be addressed before they can be rehoused. An overwhelming number need employment training and jobs. Many are victims of domestic violence. Some have open child welfare cases or children in foster care. Others have mental health issues that require attention. And finally, the cost of operating the shelter system beyond its current capacity is exorbitant. New York City spent $1.1 billion on homeless services this past year alone. In all, the city's homeless situation is not sustainable, and it is not fair.

It is not fair to the families who find they have no other choice but to leave behind their relatives and friends to face the harsh challenge of navigating the city's social service and shelter systems. It is not fair to the city's own homeless who may receive fewer services as the system is stretched beyond capacity. It is also not fair to the city's taxpayers who pay to support those from other states and municipalities. And finally, it is not fair to our local government and its taxpayers. Non-city homeless families draw upon the resources of the city housing, health, and mental health, children's services, education agencies, not to mention the Department of Homeless Services that bears direct responsibility for housing the homeless. Each day this agency has the daunting task of meeting shelter demand. They scatter to find additional space, tolerate the wrath of shelter-saturated communities, and work an endless 24/7, 365 days a year to assure that no individual, family or child is at risk because they lack a home.

New Yorkers have always been generous, and supported the right to shelter for families in need, even while other states and localities have abrogated their responsibility for sheltering their own homeless. However, New York finds itself at a treacherous crossroads, where a severe budget crunch meets an unprecedented demand for homeless services. The time is now for the city to reexamine its right to shelter policy. Any number of qualifications could be imposed that need not be punitive, just simply fair to all those involved. For example, the city could impose a temporary residency requirement to qualify for shelter with waiting period of several months. This would be a good first step towards easing the problem. It might also compel other municipalities to step up and serve their own homeless, not simply shuffle them off to other places such as New York.

Today poverty and homelessness are on the rise, and the economic outlook is not bright. While non-New York families presently constitute only a minor portion of the city's shelter population, their numbers are significant and are increasing at a brisk pace. New York has always chosen the road less travelled when it came to serving the homeless. But the city's generous right to shelter policy has become a road that brings many more to New York than we can serve. The time has arrived to switch lanes and dedicate the city's limited shelter services for local residents. As there are surely reasons this should not be done, the simple truth is that it must be done. It is practical, and above all, it is fair.