Governor Kathy Hochul announced last week her official backing of Mayor Eric Adams’ move to legally suspend the city’s right-to-shelter law. In opposition, housing advocates rallied for a statewide right-to-shelter law, investments in rental assistance and tenant protections, and social housing for all.
New York City’s right-to-shelter law was enacted 44 years ago during the Callahan v. Carey case. This lawsuit was initiated in 1979 when homelessness in the city was at an all time high, said the Coalition For the Homeless (CFH). Lawyer Robert Hayes, who co-founded the CFH, sued the city on behalf of homeless men in New York State Supreme Court. Robert Callahan, who was houseless in Manhattan with chronic alcoholism at the time, was a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Hayes argued that there was already a right-to-shelter responsibility in the state constitution. The courts ruled in his favor, then in 1981, the case was officially settled under a consent decree. It said that the city and state had to provide single-night placement, safety, shelter, basic health services, and board for all homeless adult men. Homeless single women were added in 1982 during the Eldredge v. Koch case, and homeless families with children were added to the decree years later during the McCain v. Koch case that technically ended in 2008.
CFH said that sadly during litigation, Callahan died while sleeping on the streets on the Lower East Side.
As of now, the city said it has received about 126,700 asylum seekers since last year with about 64,100 migrants still here. City officials started sending 30-day notices to adults in the shelter and emergency shelter system recently, and declared this month it will begin sending 60 day notices to families with children seeking asylum in shelters.
“For over a year, New York City has led the response to this national crisis, but significant additional resources, coordination, and support are needed from all levels of government,” said Adams in a statement. “With over 64,100 asylum seekers still in the city’s care, and thousands more migrants arriving every week, expanding this policy to all asylum seekers in our care is the only way to help migrants take the next steps on their journeys.”
Adams has also been prying away at the established right-to-shelter law since May. He filed an application on behalf of the city asking for a “modification” and “relief” from the law because of the asylum seeker crisis.
This is not the first time a mayor has tried to modify the law. Under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1999, said the CFH, the city attempted to modify the Callahan consent decree to allow denying shelter to homeless adults who wouldn’t comply with social service plans and rules. And in 2011, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City tried to propose new shelter eligibility rules for homeless single adults.
Adams has finally swayed the state to at least back his play to suspend the law since Hochul refused to institute a statewide right-to-shelter order to help. Hochul’s attorney reportedly filed with the Manhattan Supreme Court last Wednesday and, in a letter, said that the state agreed with the city’s argument for “flexibility” when it comes to the migrant crisis. Hochul also plans to expand inpatient psychiatric beds at state-operated psychiatric centers.
The city’s advocates have been in a huge uproar ever since.
Rob Robinson is a formerly homeless community organizer with Partners for Dignity and Rights and a teacher at the New School. He was homeless on the streets of Miami for about 2 years and spent 10 months at the now closed Open Door shelter in New York City. He’s proposed that homeless individuals and newly arrived migrants form a coalition as opposed to fighting over resources, and has circulated a petition to keep the right-to-shelter law.
“I believe our constitution doesn’t look at me as a human being. It values property rights over people and that’s problematic. I do think we need to band together in humanity and support one another,” said Robinson. “Everybody deserves a decent place, a dignified place, an affordable place to live with security and tenure. I don’t care if you’re just migrated here or you didn’t.”
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who was at a rally last week with Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes as well as housing and immigrant activists, was appalled.
“Right to Shelter is a statewide obligation. The governor has not only failed to uphold that right, she’s refused to acknowledge it exists,” said Williams in a statement. “Meanwhile, the mayor has been steadily trying to strip away the right to shelter since before the first bus arrived. New Yorkers have a right to shelter. It’s been a moral right throughout our city’s history, and a legal right for over four decades—it doesn’t disappear in the face of a crisis. The right to shelter isn’t failing, our leaders are.”
VOCAL-NY’s Housing Campaigns Director Adolfo Abreu said in a statement that the suspension of the right-to-shelter law will have “devastating consequences” in the long-term. “We need leadership that stops fighting, resisting, gaslighting, lying, and ignoring homelessness prevention initiatives that have broad support from New Yorkers,” said Abreu. “True leadership would ground their policies in permanently rehousing all New Yorkers experiencing homelessness.”
Additionally, President of 1199SEIU Union George Gresham said that he found the new 60-day notice rule to homeless families in shelters “deeply alarming” and especially “cruel and inhumane” to do as winter approaches. He said that the union is vehemently opposed to attempts to blame migrants for the city’s financial problems.
“There is another way to respond to the current humanitarian crisis: working together with all levels of government and community-based organizations to assist both newcomers and others in need to exit the shelter system, find jobs and affordable housing, and get back on their feet,” said Gresham. “The resources currently being dedicated to this effort can be spent much more efficiently and effectively on both emergency aid and long-term solutions, and we join in the call for additional support, especially from our federal government.”
Meanwhile, the Legal Aid Society almost immediately filed a response to the city and state’s filings to suspend the right-to-shelter law, arguing that not only is winter coming but life-sustaining shelter protects the most vulnerable New Yorkers. In their letter, Legal Aid predicts that if the mayor and governor are successful, there will be an epidemic of homeless encampments, deaths, and bodily harm to homeless individuals.
“Modification of Callahan, as proposed by the city defendants, would set a dangerous precedent,” said Legal Aid in the letter, adding that it would “call into question similar decrees that offer protection from the elements to especially vulnerable populations, such as families with minor children.”
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.