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On September 12, 60 homeless men arrived at a reception center on East 30th Street waiting for housing, only to learn that there were no beds available at any of the New York shelters. . In addition to those 60 men, according to the Legal Aid Society, others who had been treated and assigned to a bed later returned to the reception center after learning the shelters were full. City officials, if known, did not immediately say where any of these men had gone or might have spent the night.
The already strained shelter system had been stretched even further since May, when Tory governors began sending an influx of hundreds and then thousands of asylum seekers from South and Central America to the city in a series of political stunts. Under New York’s succinctly titled “right to shelter” policy, the city must provide shelter to anyone who seeks shelter on any given night – including those thousands of asylum seekers and the approximately 60,000 people who are currently filling our temporary shelters. “It is now clear that this administration simply has no grip on the city’s sprawling homelessness crisis,” the Legal Aid Society said.
In his comments about overcrowded shelters, Mayor Eric Adams seemed to imply that the crisis stemmed from the right to housing policy itself. “The city’s past practices, which never considered busing thousands of people in New York City, need to be reassessed,” he said. told reporters September 14. It only took a few hours for a spokesperson to backtrack, saying, “We’re not trying to get rid of the right to housing. The right to shelter is the law. A day later, another clarified that the city was reassessing not its housing policies but the “policies that have developed around them.”
As this convoluted nest of commentaries suggests, the right to shelter is a complicated status quo. It’s not a law, in fact, but a right dictated by a court order – contentious for several decades and still at the center of debates over what the city should provide for those in need of housing. It was created in 1981 after Callahan v. Carey, a lawsuit filed on behalf of homeless men who said the city must provide them with shelter under the protection of the New York State constitution. The case was argued by Robert Hayes, then a young lawyer, with a group of lawyers who would go on to form the Coalition for the Homeless.
We caught up with Hayes about his original vision of the right to housing, its necessity and its imperfections, and how renewed attention could advance the right to housing.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
What were you doing in 1979 before filing the Callahan v. Carey court case?
I was 25 years old and worked at Sullivan & Cromwell, one of the most demanding law firms on Wall Street. The culture of the city then was that homelessness, to the extent it was recognized, was a choice people made to live on the streets. I was volunteering at the shelters, talking to the guys there. I knew some people in what was then called human resources administration, and there was no point in focusing on what was clearly a growing disaster.
Who was Robert Callahan?
I met Bob at a place on Bleeker called the Holy Name Center for Homeless Men, where guys would pick up mail and shower. He was a short-lived former cook who drank too much and never got over it. He lived in my studio from time to time. He was a good representative of the business in that he understood what he was doing; a lot of people think a lawyer is going to give them a lot of money, but Bob Callahan understood he was upholding a principle.
How did you come up with the legal argument – that housing was a right enshrined in the New York State constitution?
I went to NYU Law School and in the basement of the library I found the state constitution, written in 1937 at the height of the Depression. It simply said that “the aid and support of the needy will be in the public interest”. The supporter of this provision and the constitution gave a long speech on, We are here in a depression, and it must be clear, no matter how difficult times are in the future, we will always maintain this fundamental relationship between the state and its people..
And the result of the trial was not a law or a policy but a decree of consent.
Okay, it’s a series of court orders – which are really tougher than laws, because you’re in contempt of court if you disobey instead of being prosecuted for breaking a law. No serious elected official in New York can really question the essence of this right to housing. The judge spent eight months negotiating the settlement, which deals with all these issues about the space between the beds, how every resident of the shelter is entitled to a lockable storage unit. I remember the fight over the sheets. The city absolutely refused to set a population limit, so I tried to do it indirectly by fighting for plumbing standards. There are complex and detailed standards. Today, the right to housing has become a kind of political ethos of our city. It’s part of our culture. That’s why it took the mayor’s people 15 minutes to backtrack on what he said about reassessing her.
It is not the first time that it has been questioned or challenged.
They fought us tooth and nail right away. The decree was signed in August 1981. In October, surprise, it was colder and the city lacked beds. We had to go back to court several times for the trial judge to separately order the opening of additional beds in the shelter. The second stage was when they started running out of beds for homeless women, which forced me to carry a case called Eldridge versus. Koch. In the mid-1980s, family litigation, extending the right to housing to include families housed together, gained momentum. Worse was when Bloomberg tried to impose demands on the right to shelter – to create a bureaucratic obstacle course, in which people had to prove they had nowhere to go. The decree is very simple: You do not have to bring all your papers to go to a shelter. Just be let in. It was the main threat because it didn’t say, “No right to shelter”. He said, “We have the right to impose bureaucratic demands,” which would have diluted the rights of the most needy people.
Mayor Adams’ comments that the fee needed to be ‘revisited’ in light of buses from Texas, Arizona and Florida – he’s basically saying a sudden surge in demand makes it untenable. Is there anything in the decree that limits who can access the right to housing?
There’s no. This line of thinking is not new, however. Adams has a particularly serious situation, but what if there was another Hurricane Sandy? We are going to have a climatic catastrophe which will create a similar need for a contingency plan to make emergency shelters.
What happened to Bob Callahan?
Mr Callahan was found dead on Mott Street. He lived to see the preliminary injunction, not the consent decree.
The right to housing is the result of a regulation. It’s an interesting way to think about it — not settled as in the endgame but settled as in some sort of compromise.
Housing is not a solution. It’s a bandage. We brought the right to housing because I couldn’t find a legal basis to bring a right to housing. We view accommodation as a reasonably permanent, safe and secure abode. Where we can raise families and grow old. The shelters are designed to save lives from tonight’s weather and other hazards. Shelter should be temporary and short-term. Without the complementary commitment to provide enough affordable and sometimes supportive housing, the shelter becomes a long-term place to live. It was flawed by definition, frankly. So we kept going upstream, trying to find ways to create something better than shelter. That was the vision, building from the right to housing.
And are we? How is the city faring there?
Wrong. I feel this weight every day. It’s depressing. On the other hand, how many people have been relieved of their misery because they had a bed for the night? And in the late 1980s, Callahan helped us make the case – not as litigation but as policy analysis – to the Koch administration that investing capital in abandoned housing in southern Bronx and eastern New York would be much cheaper. than keeping people in shelters. It became the so-called temporary housing renovation program, and Koch would later boast that it was one of the most important things he did in office. I was too nice to remind him that he fought like crazy against it. But he was right — it was a big improvement to the housing stock.
Who now needs about $40 billion in investment.
Right. The perennial debate is: does the right to shelter really help subvert what people really need? Does it kick housing? Is he hiding a problem? Yes it does. But what is the cost of not doing it?