June 20, 2023 - 1:00pm

The burdens of the US border crisis have been shared unequally. Aside from border cities, no city’s migrant crisis has been more intense than New York’s, and no government system in New York more burdened than its homeless shelters. Providing services for the migrant surge that got going in spring 2022 is estimated to cost New York City more than $4 billion. Most of that sum will go to shelter.

A homeless shelter system operates almost by definition on an emergency footing, for it exists to help people in crisis. But even for longtime observers of New York’s decades-long homelessness struggle, the migrants have provided new lessons in how public policy should not respond to crises.

New York’s migrant woes are largely self-inflicted, rooted in the local “right to shelter” policy that guarantees temporary housing to anyone who needs it. Since the current border crisis began, Chicago has received around 10,000 migrants; Philadelphia around 1,000; New York over 75,000. 

The vast majority of US cities — even sanctuary cities — have no right to shelter. Those jurisdictions who do have one tend to place more qualifications on it than does New York, such as making it apply only in extreme weather (Washington, DC), or just for families (the state of Massachusetts). New York’s right to shelter is uniquely expansive, applying to families and single adults, year-round, regardless of immigration status. Interviews with migrants have attested that they see New York shelters, and the guarantee thereof, as a draw. 

The census in New York’s core shelter system hit a record high back in October, and has soared further since then. Per city officials, the number of migrants New York is now caring for exceeds the entire shelter census (around 45,000) when mayor Eric Adams took office in January 2022.

Shelter, importantly, does not mean permanent housing. But the exit strategy for tens of thousands of migrants in New York is not clear (especially when many are staying in private rooms at the Roosevelt Hotel). New Yorker progressives’ preferred idea for easing the migrant-driven shelter crisis is expanding access to rental vouchers. Yet vouchers only help when they can be applied to a rental unit not already occupied by someone else. The number of apartments currently available and affordable to low income New Yorkers is as low as it has been in three decades.

New York’s right to shelter policy was originally intended to benefit hard up single adults with no alternative to the streets. Border migrants, compared with the native chronically homeless population, are far less impaired by behavioural health disorders and are more mobile. They do have alternatives: they could head to another city, with cheaper housing and no less economic opportunity.

Progressives have always dismissed claims that building shelters encourages homelessness, claiming that no one chooses to live rough, but homeless New Yorkers are diverse — runaway youth, victims of domestic violence, able-bodied ex-offenders, single mums with children, the mentally ill and those struggling with addiction. But due to surging numbers of migrants, officials have to focus exclusively on how to build an ever-larger shelter system, leaving them little bandwidth to strategise about how to build a better one.

To address its migrant challenge, New York’s greatest need is deterrence vis-à-vis other cities. To migrants at the border and now in other cities, it needs to send a message that New York cannot promise a better future for them than elsewhere. Mayor Adams took a step towards deterrence last month by formally requesting the authority to suspend New York’s right to shelter law in the event that city government lacked resources to meet it. Progressive advocates pledged to “vigorously oppose” Adams’s request in court, likening it to Capitol rioters asking President Trump “for a pardon in advance of Jan. 6”.

In years past, some jurisdictions, such as California, have debated establishing a New York-style right to shelter. That chatter has died down since the migrant crisis began. But until the issue is solved at the border, it is highly likely that this problem will only get worse. 

Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor of City Journal, and author of Homelessness in America (Rowman & Littlefield 2022).