A Shelter Is Not a Home: Is Decent Housing a Basic Human Right?

Despite the successes achieved in Washington, D.C., and New York City, gaining access to crisis shelter care for homeless people, although important, is not a solution to the problem of homelessness (Hopper & Barrow, 2003). It soon became clear that people were languishing in shelters, with limited opportunities to obtain permanent housing. In New York City, a class-action lawsuit on behalf of homeless mentally ill people (Koskinas v. Cuomo, 1993) was filed to compel the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation to implement the individual service plans of mentally ill patients ready for hospital discharge under Mental Hygiene Law 29.15. This law stated that, at the point of discharge from the hospital, it was the responsibility of the hospital to ensure that the service plans addressed a patient’s need for access to adequate and appropriate housing in the community. The New York State Supreme Court affirmed the order of the Appellate Court that the responsibility of implementing Mental Hygiene Law 29.15 fell to the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation. However, the Court determined that “neither the statute nor the affirmed judgment imposes upon the Health and Hospitals Corporation the explicit duty to build, create, supply, or fund such housing” (Koskinas v. Cuomo, 1993).

The observation that crisis shelters were merely a stopgap measure with no possibility of permanent homes for the homeless made the achievement of legislative support for shelters and temporary housing a Pyrrhic victory. Moreover, in the 1980s, federal funding for housing had been sharply reduced, resulting in a lack of low-income housing nationwide. The belief that “all human beings have the right to a basic standard of living that includes safe, affordable housing” (mission statement, National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty,; see also Hartman, 1998) has motivated advocates to press for policies that would not only increase the availability of low-cost housing, but would also assist people on entitlements or limited income to obtain stable housing. Despite the lack of national consensus that housing is a human right, the belief that permanent housing is the solution to homelessness has stimulated the development of an array of innovative housing opportunities and has given rise to permanent supportive housing for people with severe mental illness (see chapters 6 and 7).

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