‘The right to shelter provides unshakeable protections for those who would otherwise have no choice but to sleep on the street. Threats to the right to shelter by New York mayors aren’t new—Both Giuliani and Bloomberg mounted strident challenges to modify and undo it.’
For the last 40 years, New York City has been the only place in the nation that has a right to shelter for homeless men, women, and families. Set by the historic Callahan v. Carey case, New York City and State must provide shelter to anyone in the city who is homeless, qualifies for home relief and requests shelter. But all of that could be in jeopardy depending on the outcome of the mayoral elections.
New York City’s municipal shelter system is the largest in the nation. According to the NYC Department of Homeless Services, the shelter population on any given night has swelled annually from 12,600 in 1983 to more than 55,000 today. There are many contributors to homelessness, and the census in emergency shelters is a barometer of need among low-wage earners and the unemployed who can not afford housing and may also need mental health and other support services. The right to shelter provides unshakeable protections for those who would otherwise have no choice but to sleep on the street.
Sadly, threats to the right to shelter by New York mayors aren’t new. Since Ed Koch left office, the number of people in city shelters has risen steadily and been used as a yardstick of failure against every mayor. Both Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg mounted strident challenges to modify and undo the right to shelter. Near the end of his term, Bloomberg sought to require homeless individuals seeking shelter to vigorously prove they had no other housing options, and Giuliani attempted to force homeless adults to accept workfare jobs in exchange for shelter. The court struck down each of these efforts, recognizing the impediments posed by mental, physical and other challenges experienced by many homeless people.
We should expect commitments from mayoral candidates to support the right to shelter, especially on the heels of COVID and the public health and economic crisis it has presented. However, some candidates are saying the city is putting too much focus on building shelters, including an expressed interest in a right to housing over the right to shelter. This is grasping at straws without a clear understanding of the legal foundation and role of shelters.
An emergency shelter is not meant to be a permanent solution and is instead a place of last resort. Permanent supportive and affordable housing are essential to ending homelessness, but what do we do for the thousands of people who are on waiting lists for housing, have untreated mental illnesses or no family that can support them in a crisis? Shelters allow people to have a roof over their heads, and it puts homeless people in touch with service providers to help access support and resources to rebuild their lives. Though the large number of people residing in shelters is staggering, it is to New York’s credit to be providing for our most destitute.
Once Mayor Bill de Blasio leaves office, Commissioner Steven Banks of the NYC Department of Social Services is at risk of leaving as well. Commissioner Banks, formerly director of The Legal Aid Society, has been a longtime advocate for homeless people, helping to secure the right to shelter for families and repeatedly protecting that right for all against mayoral onslaughts. Since the early 1980s, tens of thousands of homeless people in New York City needed shelter on any given night. Hopefully, we will not need another champion like Mr. Banks in the courts during the next administration. Our next mayor must commit to honor the right to shelter.
Tony Hannigan is the founder, former president and CEO of the Center for Urban Community Services (CUCS). Joe DeGenova is current president and CEO of CUCS, a not-for-profit organization providing supportive services and housing for homeless and low-income people.