Questions to debate/discuss as California considers a right to shelter

I am having some depression today, so this may not be as cogent as it deserves to be.  But I want to start some conversations. 

State Senator Scott Wiener has proposed a vision in SB48 on a “right to shelter.” Right now, it’s in trial balloon phase: Wiener and his team seem to like doing proposals like this to gauge reactions and get feedback. (I now no longer feel any guilt whatsoever on criticizing SB827.  This way, Wiener gets some free consulting from yoinks like me, and he can gauge how people are reacting.) 

The thing about somewhat vague proposals is that devil is *always* in the details with policies, and some of the nonsense critics of 827 had to put up with during the deliberation as people who love the idea of upzoning screamed and yelled at us as called us names for not being sold on a generic policy concept and wanting to know upfront what protections are on the table to protect existing renters. 

Here is a nice discussion of New York’s conflicts about implementing a right to shelter over the years. 

The right to shelter is a similar big concept that would benefit from more discussion to flesh out what we are really thinking. 

Some important policy points: 

1.  Can we link the right shelter to a stable, long-term funding source?  I hate that merely asking this question puts you in the realm of shithead online debaters who are all like HOW YA GONNNA PAY FOR THAT HUH HUH UHUH whenever they see a social welfare policy like single-payer discussed. There are many ways to pay for things. It doesn’t hurt to ask the question now. 

To actualize a right to shelter, we’d need to work with cities, and the last thing California cities need is an unfunded mandate to house people. That is a recipe for *bad* shelters, fiddled numbers, etc. 

It would be helpful to start locating possible funding streams, such as homeless program bond funds, to link to new legislation. (These bonds are big pots for now, but bonds are time-limited, and a right to shelter would not be.)  

Who has figured this out already? 

2. Accessibility to services versus service eligibility requirements.  The current language suggests “ability to access services.” 

That’s a big and I’d argue,  good statement, but it could mean several things, ranging from: 

A) shelters should be in transit-accessible locations, as should social service agencies;

B) shelter staff help development treatment plans and enable comprehensive service sign-up and provision (this is a hard one; shelters usually do have staff to help with service access, but granted the large range of services people need and the consolidation of those services, most clients do have to travel, see (a). 

And more importantly: does the right to shelter hinge on developing and sticking to a housing transition and/or treatment plan, or is a right to shelter a right to shelter regardless of client compliance?  

There are pros and cons of both.  Trying to program individuals into treatment or housing plans undermines the notion of a right.  Our current policing notwithstanding, you don’t get disqualified from the right to a jury trial unless you waive it.  It’s not conditional on how nice you are, whether you’ve done what the cops and social workers have told you to do so far, etc. Sentencing, however, does tend to include those things. 

That said, the right to shelter surely should not be envisioned as a means of housing people who could be transitioned into longer term housing if they got the medical care they need. The point should probably be helping people in the short term and in the long-term wherever possible, and the idea is to incentivize people to make and stick to long-term plans. 

 The question becomes what exactly we want to emphasize about the right to shelter: the “rights” language or the “shelter” language. Pretty much any qualifiers or strings you attach to a right undermine its status as a right in practice, even though rights are hardly unconditional. Thus far, New York courts seem to have agreed with advocates that the right to shelter precludes denying shelters based on compliance.  

You really can’t force people to accept treatment, but you can deny them access to other things if they refuse to comply.  I don’t like it, but I do see the point of it. 

C) What is going to be the spatial model for shelter locations? Cities may be tempted into “warehousing”— fewer, bigger shelters with lots of beds, instead of more, smaller facilities because neighborhoods oppose shelters and you have to optimize what you build when you see any daylight at all. (This is why infrastructure projects get big: conflict negotiation has scale economies, and you have to negotiate no matter what the project size.) 

There are pros and cons here again. It’s easier to make sure service is accessible if people are in one location.  It can also turn a place into a stigmatized dead zone that acts as a rationale that opponents use to drub you with when you propose new shelters. 

D) What does the demand created for new shelter beds by a right to housing mean vis-a-vis single-family zoning that says no shelters? Does the right to shelter trump single-family zoning, or do zoning rules mean we likely consolidate shelters in the scant, already-mixed zones we have?  I prefer the former, but I can see some reasons for the latter, too, mostly having to do with the ability to get construction done and services offered faster. 

E) How do we keep families together? The language Wiener used says that partners will remain together. How do we work with families experiencing homelessness?  I do think this is something that NYC’s experience could help with. 

These are some things I’ve been thinking about.  I don’t have any answers yet, and FFS don’t use this post as a “god that Schweitzer woman hates any new housing” blather because that’s not true. Wanting to see actual policy proposals on the table is not a sin, nor is it evidence that I hate everything YIMBY. 

Why Ayn Rand’s novels do not excite ethicists (at least not me)

We’ve been chatting over the weekend on Quora about “Why Don’t Philosophers Take Ayn Rand Seriously?” The usual responses come down to some kvetches that philosophers are all lefties and are, therefore, biased. Or academic snobbery. But I think the answer is easier than that. I think she’s got some fairly simple dictates about ethics that don’t require a lot of elaboration, and thus, there’s just not much to do with it.

Now, keep in mind, I’m talking about her novels, most of which are morality tales and meant as models for her ethics. I’m not talking about her metaphysics, which I haven’t studied.

The space for exploration in ethics as field concerns what we owe other people. Rand’s answer to that question is “nothing.” To the degree that you want to argue this position, all you have after that are consequentialist claims about how we are all better off if we just pursue our own interests and don’t interfere with others doing the same–a claim that I don’t even see Rand herself making. All she seems to care about is the singular liberty and self-ownership of individuals, and in the novels those concepts are presented as deontological. People should not interfere with other people because they shouldn’t, not because there are, necessarily, any aggregate gains from that noninterference. But let’s play along with thinking about outcomes because that’s the way I think it’s presented mostly commonly today: individuals get freedom, which is the highest priority, and society gets more–more innovations, more well-being (because we’re all pursuing our own ends and not being used as ends), more individual, and thus aggregate, utility.

If you allow the idea that we owe each other something, then you can at least spend some time thinking about what the contours of those obligations should be. There’s something to do there. If your answer is ‘nothing other than noninterference’ like Rand’s, it’s pretty much a mic drop in ethics. Instead, you spend your time, as Rand does, envisioning the possibilities of noninterference. Or you can outline what the duties and rights of noninterference entail–which also boil down to applications of negative rights.

Max Stephenson on our Senate’s failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Max Stephenson writes about members of the US senate scoring some rather cheap political points by refusing to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

This sad episode tarnishes once more the nation’s standing as a leader in human rights and democracy in the world community. That this negative vote occurred at all is testimony to the much-discussed “broken character” of our politics. That it apparently occurred for the reasons it did is doubly distressing as it signals a deeper corruption of the democratic choice-making process in the United States. In the present instance, that process was hijacked neatly by a profoundly misguided, but well-positioned and vocal set of actors who, apparently, for their own narrow political purposes have managed to tar their nation in the eyes of the world and once more to deny the nation’s disabled even a symbolic claim to equal standing with their fellow citizens. This Senate action must be reversed. It not only is morally and substantively indefensible, but also profoundly anti-democratic.

The whole essay is worth reading.

Sigh. I understand the frustration with the UN that many on the right feel, that it is a mechanism for entangling the US with other countries. In my class on social justice, we examined the Texas secession movement and looked at various proposed constitutions, all of which had some provision specifying that the Republic of Texas would have no dealings with other countries except for trade. That kind of backseat governance sounds great in theory, but it didn’t actually work for Switzerland. Are there other examples where isolationism actually works?

Thus the question comes down to what type of entanglement are you going have?

The pragmatist in me thinks it would be more useful to support the UN when it is doing something it might actually be good at such as brokering voluntary agreements about cosmopolitan human rights questions, and to hold out when it wants to send your troops into hairy peace-keeping situations. The US seems to be doing the reverse: rather routinely sending troops to places that make little sense to our democratic populace, with their Black Hawk Down scenarios.

IOW, I don’t actually envision the US ever sending troops to Faroffistan to deal with their failure to provide wheelchairs ramps and government materials in braille. Rights covenants tend to be attempts at expectations- and example-setting and idea diffusion more than policy enforcement. Those seem like very good uses of global governance, even for conservatively minded people to me.