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New York City's Homeless Bill of Rights becomes law


Homelessness in New York City has hit levels that haven't been seen since the Great Depression. The advocacy group the Coalition for the Homeless says that as of March, there were more than 75,000 people sleeping in city shelters each night. That includes thousands of children. And recent migrants to the U.S. are also among those without stable housing. A homeless bill of rights is now in effect in the city. The new law explicitly acknowledges the right to sleep outdoors, with some limitations, and the right to apply for rental aid. It also gives people the right to complain about shelter conditions without repercussions.

JUMAANE WILLIAMS: What we found is people who were not otherwise breaking any of the laws were being harassed - you know, move along or just otherwise harassed - when they weren't actually doing anything illegal. We didn't create any laws. What we did create, which we didn't have before, was a tool, a self-advocacy tool that people may not have had before.

MARTIN: That's New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. Our colleague, Leila Fadel, spoke with him earlier.


So one of the things I read in the bill of rights was, as you mentioned, it doesn't give anyone new rights. But also, a person can't sue if someone violates these rights. So the question for me became, what does it actually do? What does it protect?

WILLIAMS: Well, be clear - you can sue.


WILLIAMS: You can sue in the right that exists. So you can't use this one law and say, this homeless bill of rights is why I'm suing. But you can say - sue and say, I was in the shelter, and I didn't get the interpreter I needed.

FADEL: Oh, I see.

WILLIAMS: Or I was in the shelter, and I wasn't able to communicate with the housing specialist. And so you are able to sue under the other laws that already exist.

FADEL: Mayor Adams allowed this bill to go into law. He didn't veto it. But he's also challenging New York City's right to shelter law, which requires the city to provide shelter to anyone who requests it. And this is coming in light of the influx of people who are unhoused, asylum-seekers who are in New York. Is this a contradiction?

WILLIAMS: There are a number of decisions that this mayor is making that I think is not helpful for the asylum-seekers or for New Yorkers who have been homeless. And so we always remind folks, the day before the first asylum-seeker bus came to New York City, there were over 50,000 New Yorkers already in the shelter - a lot of them working, a lot of them children, a lot of them families. Had we dealt with the situation then, it might not be as acute now. I always say that this mayor is correct. We are not getting the assistance and help we need from the federal government at all. But I believe he's wrong in some of the things that we're doing. And challenging the right to shelter is one of those things where we vehemently disagree.

FADEL: How do you change, though, this fear that some New Yorkers have? They see somebody sleeping outside and instead of feeling sympathy, they feel fear for themselves and their safety. How does - how do you change that? And what do you say to those people about this bill of rights?

WILLIAMS: You know, right now, we have leaders that are doing the tried-and-true method of stoking fear to elevate themselves in power. And that has dangerous consequences. So we see across the country, people are using fear and uncomfortability (ph) as, I can now kill you. And so what we would want to see in our leaders is changing the rhetoric and how they're having the discussion. What we're hoping that this bill of rights can do is be a part of that change so people can recognize the humanity in Jordan Neely, can recognize the humanity in people who are unhoused and who are homeless.

FADEL: Jumaane Williams is the public advocate for the city of New York and a former city council member from Brooklyn. Thank you so much for your time.

WILLIAMS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF YONDERLING'S "WEST WINDOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.