By Alex Maroño Porto
New York is the only major city in the country that offers a legal “right to shelter” to anyone within its borders who requests it. There are no residency or income requirements. You can come from another city, state, country, or continent, and, if you have no place to stay, New York must shelter and feed you, in a timely manner, in a place that — theoretically — meets certain court-set standards.
The policy dates back several decades and typically has served those who are homeless for a host of economic, social, or psychological reasons. But now it’s in the news almost daily as the city grapples with an influx of tens of thousands of asylum seekers, many of whom arrive in need of immediate shelter. The asylum wave is fallout from the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the humanitarian emergency after the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and — the largest source of asylum seekers — the ongoing crises in Venezuela and other Latin American countries. U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s monthly statistics show the number of border crossers recorded by the agency remains close to record highs; in April, they totaled 211,401, 10% more than in March.
Republican governors such as Greg Abbott in Texas and Ron DeSantis in Florida have bused asylum seekers to cities led by Democratic politicians, in an effort to pressure the Biden administration to adopt more restrictive immigration laws. As the only major metropolitan area in the country with a “right to shelter,” New York City has sought a variety of solutions to find accommodation for many of the more than 50,000 who have arrived since April 2022, according to Mayor Eric Adams. But the numbers have strained an already overwhelmed shelter system, prompting the city government to call for a “reassessment” of the right to shelter — which in turn has prompted criticism from advocates for immigrants and the homeless.
What exactly is this right to shelter, and how has it been implemented at different moments of its history? The Rag takes a look.
The origins of the Right to Shelter
In the 1970s, street homelessness in New York and elsewhere became increasingly widespread as a result of the deinstitutionalization of mental health patients, a deep economic crisis, and staggering unemployment in the city that reached a high of 11.5% in March 1975. Robert Hayes, a journalist-turned-lawyer in the city, often talked with homeless men he encountered on the street. He raised their plight with city officials but “the city was still clawing its way back from its brush with bankruptcy,” Hayes told the Rag in a recent interview, “and I think it’s fair to say that nobody in the city government had any interest in expanding services for homeless people.”
So Hayes went to court, filing a lawsuit in which a homeless man, Robert Callahan, was the lead plaintiff claiming a right to shelter. Hayes hung the case on a phrase he found in the New York State Constitution, rewritten in 1937 during the depths of the Great Depression. “That period could be compared to the tsunami of poverty and homelessness we have in New York City today,” Hayes said in the Rag interview. In that rewrite, a provision was added to the constitution stating that “the aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state.” The word “shall” was key, and the state Supreme Court sided with Hayes in deciding Callahan v. Carey, which made sheltering, or “short-term housing accompanied by support services,” a constitutional right in New York City.
Two years later, in 1981, New York City adopted the right to shelter for all homeless men, while women were included in 1983 and families with children in 1986.
“I think that the most important work that the litigation and the organizing of the 1980s did was to change the public view of homeless people and to humanize them,” Hayes told the Rag. “Maybe a little bit of that is necessary today again.”
How the Right to Shelter has evolved in New York City
Since the legal case was decided, each city administration has approached the right to shelter differently. After his reelection as mayor in 1981, Ed Koch laid the groundwork for a municipal shelter system, with barracks-like accommodations, and, by early 1983, the city operated 13 shelters, reported The New York Times. In order to break the cycle of homelessness, Koch also adopted a policy known as “Housing New York,” building more than 15,000 homes for this population as part of a 10-year plan.
“If a person ought to be in a shelter and has not been reached, that is a failure,” Koch said in 1985.
David Dinkins, Koch’s successor, expanded homeless policies by establishing the Department of Homeless Services in 1993 as a separate city agency. But that same year, a new election brought Rudy Giuliani to City Hall on a platform that explicitly criticized the city’s approach to the issue. At that point, city shelters housed about 24,000 people on a typical night. Giuliani said that number should be cut almost in half, and most shelter stays should be limited to no more than 90 days.
“New York City stands alone in the expansiveness of its homeless policies,” Giuliani’s campaign stated. “Were these policies effective, the city’s efforts could be applauded, but essentially they have proved to be useless and self-defeating.” Giulian’s tenure was marked by stricter shelter rules, including requiring homeless people to work in order to be sheltered.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s term started with increasing levels of homelessness in the city; in January 2002, over 31,000 homeless children and adults slept in municipal shelters every night, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. The group said it was the largest one-year homelessness surge since the Great Depression. During Bloomberg’s tenure, he proposed several controversial measures, like placing homeless people in decommissioned luxury cruise ships bought in the Bahamas or in an unused Bronx jail (both of those ideas failed). He also proposed ending preferential treatment of homeless families in accessing federal housing vouchers, which was harshly criticized. The 2008 economic crisis only worsened homelessness, and in 2013, the last year of Bloomberg’s tenure, the number of homeless people sleeping at municipal shelters exceeded 50,000 for the first time, according to the Coalition’s estimates.
Enter Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014. He tried to reverse course with two major plans outlined in slick marketing materials: Turning the Tide on Homelessness and Housing New York. The first one tried to transform the shelter strategy by, among other measures, keeping homeless people close to their neighborhoods and opening 20 new shelters every year over the following five years. The second one, a tribute to a much earlier policy of Mayor Koch, turned from shelters to focus on the lack of affordable housing. De Blasio’s ambitious plan aimed to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing which, the mayor said, was achieved at the end of 2021. But according to the nonprofit Community Service Society, his plan didn’t provide adequate housing for the city’s very poorest residents.
Then the pandemic hit, making densely-populated shelters a potentially high-risk option for the homeless. De Blasio’s administration moved homeless people from crowded congregate shelters to private hotels, which had few or no customers because of COVID restrictions. Without community outreach and health supervision, however, tensions around converted hotels like The Lucerne on West 79th Street arose, with some neighbors complaining that residents abused drugs in public and engaged in violent behavior. But for some homeless people like Michael Alvarez, interviewed in 2020, sheltering at a hotel was an opportunity to rebuild their lives.
“I had my own room and because of that I got clean,” Alvarez told the Rag. “I wasn’t around drugs no longer.”
Sheltering in post-lockdown New York
After New York City started to reopen in mid-2021, many pandemic-era protections were eased. Homeless people were pulled out of hotels and moved back into city shelters, and a pandemic moratorium on evicting tenants expired on January 15, 2022, right after Mayor Eric Adams took office. That summer, more asylum seekers began arriving in the city, and homelessness skyrocketed; in December 2022, an average of 68,884 people slept in municipal shelters every night, according to the Coalition, straining resources. If all those people were put into one city, it would be New York state’s ninth most populous, ahead of Utica and Schenectady.
Drug abuse and mental health issues are two other contributors to homelessness. As Gothamist reported, drug overdoses represented close to half of the homeless deaths in the 2022 fiscal year, a 12% increase from the previous year. This overdose surge has been marked by an increase of drugs laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin and lethal in quantities smaller than a pen tip. And the city’s mental health response has been labeled as “inadequate” by New York’s Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams. In a 2022 report, Williams decried the city’s closure of four of eight respite care centers, which provide an alternative to hospitalization for people experiencing emotional crises.
But the biggest challenge for the city’s shelter system has been the recent influx of asylum seekers. In mid-May, approximately 700 asylum seekers were arriving in the city daily, reported Gothamist, and despite the city’s efforts to house them in hotels like the Belnord or former student housing like the Riverside Terrace Residence, the already overburdened shelter system was further strained.
“We need the assistance. We need an emergency action down at the border where we do a decompression strategy, so this does not fall on New York City,” Adams said last week in an interview with NY1.
News of the impending end to Title 42, a Trump-era immigration policy kept in place by President Biden until this month, also accelerated the number of migrants crossing the southern U.S. border. This measure allowed border officials to expel migrants under the premise of keeping “Americans safe and stop the spread of COVID-19,” but the end of the pandemic emergency terminated it. Fearing even more restrictive immigration policies would replace Title 42, asylum seekers tried to come to the country before it expired, prompting more than 10,000 daily encounters with federal officials in the days leading up to its end.
Can the Right to Shelter be improved?
Experts on housing and homelessness say that overcoming the current pressures on the city’s shelter system will require long-term solutions. The Doe Fund, a nonprofit established in 1985, emphasizes helping homeless clients find permanent paid jobs, which can enable them to pay for affordable housing. Having the means to pay for housing is key to alleviating homelessness, said Christopher Luggiero, The Doe Fund’s director of donor relations and communications. “We need to develop more permanent, affordable housing for low-income workers who are otherwise at risk of homelessness,” Luggiero said. “Shelters should be transitional housing. There needs to be investment in ways to get people not just into shelters, but out of them into their own housing.”
Key to finding the work that will enable them to pay for affordable housing are training and employment projects for the homeless, Luggiero said. “Work is an enormous safety valve for people who are entering the shelter system and experiencing homelessness.”
In the case of migrants, expedited work permits would allow them to make ends meet on their own, Adams has said. Governor Kathy Hochul joined him this week in urging the Biden Administration to speed up the work permit process; some project that allowing asylum seekers to work legally soon after arrival could liberate more than $1 billion dollars of public money every year.
“When you combine access to economic opportunity and work, with affordable housing and supportive housing, that reaches everyone where they are,” said Luggiero. “And if you just do one of these, it’s not going to solve the crisis.”
The Right to Shelter, Part 2: Attorney Robert Hayes speaks with WSR about the policy here.