Five words in a New York City bill that lists the rights of the homeless seem simple enough.
"The right to sleep outdoors"
Mayor Eric Adams has the bill on his desk. If the bill becomes law, then it will answer a question which has become a source of controversy in large cities that are trying to deal with homelessness. This includes New York where Mr. Adams’s administration removes dozens of urban camping sites each week.
Sponsor of the bill, Public Advocate Jumaane William, stated that his "Homeless Bill of Rights" does not create new rights, but simply compiles them in one place. He stated that, while there are laws against sleeping in some places or creating obstructions in other ways, sleeping on public property is allowed in New York City because it is not illegal.
Last month, the bill was passed by the City Council with a 47-0 vote. This included all six Republican Council members.
The question of when and where it is legal to sleep outside in New York City turns out to a complex one. It also goes to the core of Mr. Adams’s attempts to restore order to what he calls a disorderly metropolis. This question took on a new meaning this week, when the city's shelter system was overwhelmed with migrants and went to court in order to get a waiver of a decades-old rule that required it to offer a bed to anyone who wanted one.
Mr. Adams was given 30 days to act on the bill. If Mr. Adams does not approve it or veto by Saturday, then it becomes law.
New York City has thousands of homeless people sleeping in its streets and subways every night. However, the problem is not as severe as in many Western United States cities that have shantytowns and tent cities.
In a 2018 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (which covers nine Western States), cities are effectively barred from enforcing a camping ban if there are not enough shelter beds for all those who need them. Portland, Ore. and Culver City in California are among the cities that have opened municipally-run campsites to combat this crisis. Los Angeles has banned tents within 500ft of schools, and prohibited lying down on the sidewalk or storing things in areas that block it.
New York City has many laws that restrict people from sleeping on the streets.
The first is a sanitation code which makes it illegal to leave "any box, barrel or bale of merchandise or any other movable properties" or to erect "any shed, building, or other obstruction" on a 'public place'.
The rule was designed to deal with 'the increasing number of abandoned vehicles in New York City' and "punish persons who abandon or remove motor vehicle components on public streets." A federal judge upheld New York's right in 2000 to apply the rule to people who sleep in cardboard boxes.
It is against the law to camp in city parks without a permit. Or to even be in a city park between 1 am and 6 am, unless there are posted rules that state otherwise.
On the property of Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), both underground and elevated outdoor subway stations,'sleeping or dozing' in a manner that "may interfere" with passengers' comfort is prohibited. Subway riders are not allowed to 'lie on the seats of trains, buses or platforms benches or place their feet on them or occupy multiple seats or put bags or personal items in the way that interferes with the comfort of passengers'.
Beth Haroules is a lawyer with the New York Civil Liberties Union. She said that anyone who didn't violate any of these rules, such as someone who placed a sleeping bag under an overpass but did not provide any shelter, was in the clear legally, at least theoretically.
She said that as long as you don't create any obstructions in the public space, it's okay to sleep there.
Ms. Haroules stated that mayors have taken the rule against blocking public space in a broad sense. Mr. Adams continues the policy of his predecessor Bill de Blasio, who conducted frequent "sweeps" of sleeping areas. Sanitation workers remove camps and throw away people's possessions.
According to the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center, over 5,000 sweeps were conducted in the last year. That's more than 12 a day on average. Most of the time, people who are swept up move to another place.
Crystal Vails, 54 said that she has lived on the street for 13 years. The last year, or so, was in an unoccupied doorway in West Village. She claimed that the city outreach workers, as well as police officers, had visited her 20-30 times to make her move from her current encampment. However they never explained why it was illegal.
They don't tell you that,' says Ms. Vails. She is a client of the Safety Net Project, and her setup includes a sleeping bag, two bags, an shopping cart, and a mat for camping.
She added, 'They said it was against the law to stay here and sleep'. No, it is not - if this was the case, I would have been arrested long ago. I did not.
The city's Law Department refused to answer questions regarding what is legal and not legal when it comes to sleeping outside.
In a press release, a spokesman for the Law Department said that 'our primary obligation is to provide advice to client officials and agencies.' Legal advice on these subjects to the media would be inconsistent with this obligation.
Williams, a public advocate, said that 'abuses are occurring all over the system', and this was the reason for the bill he introduced. It requires the Department of Homeless Services of the City to inform homeless individuals of their 10 rights. The bill also includes the right for homeless people to lodge complaints about shelter conditions and not be retaliated, as well as the right to request housing vouchers.
He said, 'We're just giving a tool of empowerment to homeless New Yorkers who can advocate for themselves.'
New York City always had plenty of shelter beds. However, the migrant crises has stretched the system to the limit. The number of homeless people in the city has increased by almost 80 percent since May last year, leading the city to request an exemption on Tuesday from the requirement that it shelters single adults and families.
Steven Banks was the commissioner of social services under Mr. de Blasio. He criticized the city's demand.
He said that it was difficult to see that asking a judge to suspend the New York State Constitution right to shelter would be a successful strategy. 'There will be more people sleeping in the streets, and this is not in anyone's best interest.
Brendan McGuire said, at a Wednesday briefing, that the city was not interested in obtaining a court order to shut down the door, leaving thousands of people homeless.
When a reporter asked Mr. McGuire what would happen if this requirement was lifted and someone came to the shelter looking for a bed, he refused to answer.
He said that the question was a hypothetical, which depends on the outcome of the court case.