By Carol Tannenhauser
In 1979, Robert Hayes, a 26-year-old newly minted Wall Street lawyer, took New York State and New York City to court and won the legal “right to shelter” for single homeless men. It was a landmark case, Callahan vs. Carey, that reverberates today as the city grapples with an influx of tens of thousands of migrant asylum seekers.
“I often tell law students that they’re the ones who have to bring the next landmark case,” Hayes said in a recent telephone interview with West Side Rag. “An attorney more experienced and wiser than I probably would not have brought the Callahan case in the first place.”
In the 1980s, the mandate Hayes won was expanded to include women and families. It’s become the cornerstone of the massive, much-maligned New York City shelter system, which has ballooned into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Last night alone, the city sheltered around 80,000 people — nearly half of them migrants, who are also eligible for the right to shelter.
We wondered what Hayes, who now heads the 14-center Community Healthcare Network (“we turn no one away”), thinks of Callahan vs. Carey more than 40 years since it was decided. Does he have any regrets?
Robert Hayes: I mean, obviously, there are better solutions to homelessness than shelter, but that was and is a legal lever we have. I’m sorry that the right to shelter gave government an excuse not to move to a right to housing, but for many mayoral administrations since, the pressure and cost of sheltering people created an economic incentive to build affordable housing. And just imagine — 80,000 people in shelters last night — imagine 80,000 [more] people on the streets of New York. It is ridiculous in retrospect that we had to learn that homeless people did not want to live on the streets.
West Side Rag: What about the homeless people who do remain on the streets?
RH: Right now, say, there are four or five thousand people living on the streets, even with a right to shelter. The people who are very fragile — congregate shelters don’t work for them. I am a huge fan of safe havens [an emerging form of shelters that are smaller, less restrictive, and more service rich than traditional ones. See here]. Safe havens work. If we had another couple thousand safe-haven beds in the city, without forcibly removing people, 75% to 80% of the folks on the streets would come inside. Maybe not on day one, but within a bit of time. We waste so much money on outreach because the outreach workers do not have access to the single-room safe-haven beds that we need so badly.
RH: I gotta say it’s pretty impressive how many shelters they have opened up so quickly. I completely agree with the — I’ve probably never said this in my life — I completely agree with the congressional delegation from the city pleading to let these migrants start working right away. These folks are not going to be homeless long once they get jobs. So, probably, a safety valve to slow the need for more shelter beds is: work.
WSR: But then, where do they live?
RH: Well, they’re going to find places, because they’re going to have income. They’ll probably be like every other immigrant group for a while, you know, sharing places. How long did Chinese immigrants downtown have shifts of people sleeping in small apartments? It’s happened for 200 years in New York. This may be a different story, but this migrant surge — given the need for workers in New York and surrounding states — is actually, in the long haul, going to be an incredible benefit to society because of the workers it will provide.
For a full understanding of the evolution of the Right to Shelter, see Part 1 of this series here.