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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C

Could it work here? Sacramento announces radical new plan to tackle homelessness

Californians “are becoming homeless faster than we can get people the help they need,” says mayor Darrell Steinberg. Here, Seána Glennon examines his proposal.

LAST MONTH, THE mayor of California’s capital, Sacramento, announced a radical new plan to tackle the city’s homelessness crisis: a new law mandating the city to house the homeless, with a corresponding obligation upon homeless people to accept accommodation when it is offered.

If passed, this would be the first law of its kind in the US and could provide a
blueprint for other states to follow.

California is a state in which gross societal inequalities are evident, with gated communities in cities like Sacramento and Los Angeles existing alongside shantytowns and ‘tent cities’.

The problem has become increasingly politically charged, leading to this recent push to
meaningfully tackle it. Although the societal contexts and legal systems differ, many of the issues experienced there are those we in Ireland are familiar with: a pattern of rising rents and spiralling house prices leading to serious barriers to home ownership, insecurity in the rental market and homelessness.

Ireland’s housing and homelessness crisis has persisted for the past decade. Government
parties and opposition continue to fight bitterly over the approach to take. The only thing it seems the political parties can agree upon is that this is indeed a crisis and that action needs to be taken.

Could the imposition of a statutory obligation to provide housing, similar to that proposed in Sacramento, be the first step?

No fundamental human right to housing has ever been recognised in Ireland, either in the Constitution or in legislation.

Successive Irish governments have acknowledged the persistent homelessness crisis as a priority and have offered long-term roadmaps which they promise will address it. Yet none of these proposed plans have provided for consequences for a failure to deliver.

What has been missing from Ireland’s various housing strategies over the years has therefore been meaningful accountability.

The radical element of Sacramento’s proposed new approach is the idea of not only a
mandatory legal obligation on the city to provide housing, but also a corresponding
obligation on the part of the homeless person to accept accommodation when offered.

Such a model is not uncontroversial.

Homelessness advocates have long argued for housing to recognised as a fundamental human right which ought to be enshrined in statute or in the Constitution and enforceable in a court of law.

There are legitimate concerns, however, that mandating an obligation to accept whatever housing is offered is an interference with individual autonomy and may operate to provide city authorities with carte blanche to bulldoze temporary homeless structures where any offer of alternative shelter has first been made.

Perhaps in anticipation of these concerns, the Sacramento Mayor acknowledges that
housing alone, without accompanying services, will not suffice. He argues that requiring
people to accept accommodation is the best way to ensure they can get the help they need
and that “there is no liberty in dying alone on the street”.

Those in chronic, long-term homelessness are more likely to experience deteriorating
mental health. Empirical evidence is available to suggest that providing independent housing to homeless people suffering mental health difficulties, without any prior conditions, can benefit the recipients from both a physical and mental health perspective.

In the 1990s in New York City, a group of people experiencing homelessness and mental illness were provided with immediate access to housing, without first being required to undergo any treatment programmes or to prove that they were ‘ready’ to be housed. The provision of housing was integrated with physical and mental health services.

2007 study by Deborah K. Padgett of the experiences of the group showed that the provision of permanent, independent housing afforded the participants the freedom and security to begin to build a stable and less stigmatised life for themselves.

The study noted that few people will refuse an offer of housing and that most will benefit from it, physically and mentally.

The introduction of a legal obligation to provide or obligation to accept housing in an Irish context, however, would need to be carefully considered to ensure its constitutionality and the protection of the rights of those in need of secure shelter.

What would be involved in an ‘obligation’ to accept accommodation? An immediate concern of homelessness advocates in Sacramento is the possibility of criminal sanctions for a refusal to accept an offer of accommodation.

While the details of the proposed law remain to be seen, the Mayor has indicated that any penalty would likely be in the civil sphere. This aspect of the plan clearly needs to be examined further, and indeed, care must be taken to ensure that the voices of those experiencing homelessness are listened to.

If any obligation to accept accommodation is to be contemplated, such accommodation would need to be of an acceptable standard, at a minimum complying with the United Nations key elements of ‘adequate’ housing, which include habitability, accessibility, appropriate location and cultural adequacy.

The Minister for Housing here, Darragh O’Brien, is due to publish a major new policy on housing later this month – Housing for All. We await full details of what exactly the new plan will contain, but one aspect to look out for will be that of accountability: if the plan fails to achieve the aims it promises, will there be any concrete consequences for the state, other than the possibility of being punished by voters at the next general election?

It remains to be seen whether the right-to-housing measure will be passed by Sacramento’s City Council, but we can also look to countries closer to home who have existing models of a legally enforceable right to housing.

Scotland has long had legislation obligating local authorities to house the homeless and to provide temporary accommodation until suitable permanent housing becomes available.

In a similar vein, France introduced legislation in 2007 providing for a legally enforceable right to housing.

The enactment of a statutory right to adequate housing does not automatically mean that homelessness will be eradicated, of course.

It must be accompanied by the political will to realise housing for all; a mandatory legal obligation, whether enshrined in the Constitution or in statute, may be just the tool needed to finally cement that political will.

Homelessness is an extreme problem and it demands an extreme solution. If the
government is as confident as it claims to be that this new plan will address the problem,
then it should mandate itself to achieve the outcomes promised with tangible consequences for a failure to deliver.

This includes the empowerment of those affected to claim their right in a court of law.

Government is asking the electorate to have faith in its new plan to solve the homelessness crisis, where all previous plans have failed.

A law mandating it to achieve its promise would be not only a serious statement of intention but would show that the government believes its own pledge.

Seána Glennon is a PhD candidate at the Sutherland School of Law, UCD and Chief Outreach Officer at UCD’s Centre for Constitutional Studies

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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