The city’s ‘right to shelter’ provides a basic safety net not seen anywhere else in the country, allowing anyone who wants a shelter bed to get one (at least temporarily). But that right appears to be under siege as the city struggles to meet shelter demand amid a surge in homelessness.

Shelter beds in the Bronx

Adi Talwar

An 80-bed SafeHaven shelter for street homeless New Yorkers in The Bronx.

If your city’s most iconic landmark bears the inscription, “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” you kind of have to live up to that.

And New York City, for all its flawed interventions, inaccessible housing and deepening inequality, has one unique policy that nods to the poem at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, at least when it comes to opening the door to the “huddled masses” and “tempest-tost” homeless: The city’s “right to shelter” provides a basic safety net not seen anywhere else in the country, allowing anyone who wants a shelter bed to get one (at least temporarily, in the case of families found ineligible following an investigation.)

Now that right appears to be under siege.

A steep rise in the number of newly arrived immigrants entering the Department of Homeless Services’ (DHS) shelter system—alongside more and more New Yorkers facing eviction, displacement and domestic abuse—has sent city officials scrambling to increase shelter capacity, considering cruise ships and summer camp facilities as possible shelter sites.

Mayor Eric Adams issued a cryptic statement about the right to shelter Sept. 14.

“The city’s prior practices, which never contemplated the bussing of thousands of people into New York City, must be reassessed,” he said, following reports that the city had violated its right to shelter policy when officials failed to find beds for about 60 men at the 30th Street intake center the night before. 

All told, 11,000 newly arrived immigrants have entered DHS shelters this year, though not all have stayed, city officials say. Their presence has coincided with a number of other economic and social factors fueling homelessness, including the end of statewide eviction protections, pathetic affordable housing production figures, a miniscule number of new city-financed apartments set aside for homeless New Yorkers, weakening efforts to curtail discrimination against people with rent subsidies and the ongoing transfer of families from domestic violence shelters into the strained DHS system.

After first saying that every policy, including “right to shelter,” was on the table, Adams’ team backtracked. The next day, Sept. 15, the mayor and his chief counsel Brendan McGuire told reporters they did not mean to suggest challenging the consent decrees that established the right to shelter for adults following a landmark 1979 court order in a lawsuit filed by a homeless man named Robert Callahan, and for families in the wake of a 1983 legal challenge (that case, initiated by attorney Steve Banks, who later oversaw DHS as commissioner of the Department of Social Services, was finally settled in 2008).

Instead, McGuire described in vague terms a desire to contest policies related to the right to shelter that have been codified or implemented to make life a little better for homeless New Yorkers—but more challenging for city government—since the 1979 ruling.

“We are not reassessing the right to shelter. We are reassessing the city’s practices that have developed around the right to shelter,” McGuire said, though he did not provide specifics about just what practices may need tinkering.

Adams has since given multiple interviews asserting his support for the right to shelter. And anyway, he cannot overturn it unilaterally, as past mayors have come to understand. Rudy Giuliani campaigned on capping shelter stays and ending the right to shelter ahead of his 1993 election. Michael Bloomberg tried to lock out single adults by making them prove their eligibility in 2011.

But the patchwork of court orders and state and local policies stemming from the 1979 court ruling in the Callahan case withstood those challenges. The order is based on an interpretation of the New York State Constitution, which states “the aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions.”

Still, it’s hard to stuff visions of a shredded social safety net back in the bottle once critics get a glimpse, said Milton Perez, a formerly homeless organizer with the group VOCAL-NY. 

“[Adams’] words have an effect,” Perez said.

Indeed, several conservative elected officials and institutions have seized on the mayor’s comments. Staten Island Councilmember Joe Borelli, a Republican and the Council’s minority leader, told the Staten Island Advance on Sept. 15 that the right to shelter is a “blank check on the taxpayers’ account” and said the rise in the homeless population was the result of failed immigration policies.

The rightwing editorial board of the New York Post, whose support was key to Adams’ victory in the Democratic primary last year, celebrated the implications of the mayor’s initial statement. The board on Sunday urged Adams to direct McGuire to go to court and challenge the consent decree “with an eye on terminating it”—a legal strategy that would “require a brutal legal and political battle.”

So what if he did just that? What would New York City look like without the right to shelter?

City Limits talked to several people who have lived in shelters to get their perspective. All agreed that conditions and rehousing services need immediate improvement, but said limiting access to shelters would make existing problems worse, while leaving an untold number of people on the streets without a basic backstop.

NYC Mayor Eric Adams at a press briefing

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Eric Adams at a press briefing in July, where he discussed the uptick in asylum seekers in shelter.

‘Akin to the Great Depression’ 

Losing the right to shelter “would be a massive system failure,” said Renee Mitchell, the CEO of the homeless outreach organization Breaking the Cycle Drop Corp.

Mitchell, 67, entered a Crown Heights homeless shelter with her 1-year-old daughter nearly two decades ago, when she had nowhere else to go, she said. There, she was able to get health and counseling services before landing a scattered-site supportive housing unit a year and a half later, she said.

“People can do better with the proper resources,” Mitchell said. “But you have to meet people where they’re at with no wrong door.”

Around 58,000 people are staying in DHS-administered shelters, according to daily data tracked by City Limits. In July, just over 66,000 different people stayed in some kind of city shelter, including youth facilities and sites run by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, City Limits’s data analysis shows.

Given the persistent crisis, what New York City really needs is a right to housing, said Karim Walker, an organizer who spent years staying in public spaces, in DHS men’s shelters and in SafeHavens—facilities with fewer restrictions than the broader shelter network—before getting an apartment through a housing lottery.

But that right to housing—an effort to connect unhoused people with rental assistance and permanent apartments, rather than temporary beds—would not magically materialize if the right to shelter were dismantled, he added. New York City is far from implementing a true “Housing First” model to end chronic homelessness, though such an approach is possible.

That means New Yorkers will have to continue fighting for it, ideally with somewhere to go at night aside from a park bench, said Walker, who performs homeless outreach with the organization Safety Net Project.

“I won’t rule out the possibility that [shelters] could have saved my life,” he said. “It gave me, if nothing else, a physical roof over my head, for all its flaws.”

Walker has criticized conditions in city shelters, as well as the administrative delays and lack of enforcement against private housing discrimination that prevent people from moving out sooner (according to the city’s latest Mayor’s Management Report, families now spend close to 18 months in shelters on average, while single adults spend an average of 17 months, both longer than prior years).

But without the right to shelter baseline, more and more New Yorkers would end up bedding down in public spaces where they risk exposure, arrest and random violence, Walker said.

“New York City without the right to shelter is a very scary concept,” he said. “It’s going to be something akin to the Great Depression Era when you had encampments in Central Park.”

New Deal work programs, the end of the Great Depression and World War II eliminated mass homelessness and the makeshift “Hoovervilles” that people displaced by economic crisis erected in Central Park and other public spaces.

In the ensuing decades, most homeless New Yorkers were unemployed white men with mental illness and substance use disorders who slept outside on the Bowery, paid for cheap hotel rooms or were hauled into police stations for public drunkenness. The men could secure one of a few hundred beds in a barracks-style shelter in Lower Manhattan or, if that was full, get a ticket for a nearby single-room occupancy hotel room nearby.

But through the late 1970s, economic factors—specifically, the destruction of cheap housing—began forcing more people into homelessness. “There existed a rudimentary system of emergency shelters which were almost always filled to capacity, particularly in the winter, and thousands of homeless men seeking shelter were forced to turn to the streets,” Coalition for the Homeless says of the years before the Callahan ruling. “Incidents of hypothermia and cold-related deaths and injuries among the homeless were ‘routine.’”

In that context, Callahan, represented by attorney Robert Hayes and a nascent Coalition for the Homeless, sued the city for the right to shelter on behalf of all homeless men. Since that first ruling in 1979, New York City’s shelter system has expanded into a complex network of nonprofit providers and city agencies guided by a series of court orders and laws.

The system too often leaves people behind without a clear pathway to permanent housing, said Perez, the VOCAL-NY organizer, but it could be worse. He likened New York City without the right to shelter to other major American cities, like Los Angeles, where more than 66,000 people were homeless in 2020, most of them unsheltered.

“Imagine the worst city then multiply it by thousands and thousands of people in the streets,” Perez said. “Plus all these people losing their jobs, people who are paychecks away from being in the shelter.”

“The change,” the Adams administration should be pursuing, he said, “should be establishing a right to housing” while improving shelter conditions and investing in rapid rehousing programs—moving people into permanent homes after only brief shelter stays. 

Adi Talwar

A homelessness encampment on a Lower Manhattan sidewalk near Tompkins Square Park last fall.

‘A whole bunch of people with nowhere to go’

Just 0.3 percent of families with children and 4.6 percent of single adults who move out of shelters with a rent subsidy end up returning in a year, according to the latest mayor’s report. The problem is, the number of move-outs into permanent housing—subsidized or not—dropped significantly last fiscal year to 12,250 compared to 13,730 in fiscal year 2021, further fueling the shelter strain amid the rise in newly arrived immigrants.

But there is no indication that eliminating the right to shelter would make finding permanent housing any easier, advocates point out. 

Cutting services tends to lead to deeper poverty and chaos, as seen when the state stopped funding the Advantage housing voucher program in 2011, prompting the Bloomberg administration to kill the subsidy. That fateful decision pulled the rental assistance out from under thousands of families. Less than three years later, half had returned to homeless shelters, fueling a then-record-high number of people in DHS single adult and family shelters. The census continued to surge into late 2016 and early 2017, when the number of people in DHS shelters topped out around 63,000 people.   

The Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society, which won the right to shelter and became court-appointed monitors of the DHS system in the consent decree stemming from the 1979 Callahan ruling, have pushed back against Adams’ comments, even as they acknowledge the need for better services and conditions.

“We have a long way to go to ensure the types of shelters we’re offering meet people’s needs and offer privacy, safety and dignity while connecting them with permanent housing,” said Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Jacquelyn Simone. “But it is undeniable that the right to shelter in New York City has saved lives by giving people a bed and something to eat and a place to have their necessities met.”

Lincoln Restler, a Brooklyn councilmember who worked on shelter siting issues as an aide to former Mayor Bill de Blasio, has discussed introducing legislation to bolster the right to shelter following Adams’ comments.

“The prospect of a city without the right to shelter would inevitably mean an explosion of street homelessness,” he said. “The street homelessness crisis we see in LA, San Francisco and Northwestern cities and Midwestern cities would overwhelm the five boroughs if the right to shelter was ever weakened or eliminated.”

The number of newly arrived immigrants is indeed straining capacity, and has led to at least one tragedy. A mother of two committed suicide inside a Queens shelter Monday after crossing the southern border and arriving in New York City, city officials said. 

Following news of her death, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and General Welfare Committee Chair Diana Ayala reaffirmed their support for the right to shelter for all New Yorkers.

“The Council will constructively work with all stakeholders to ensure the City fulfills its obligation to all of our residents,” they said. 

For Melvin Green, a formerly homeless Far Rockaway resident who secured an apartment earlier this year, access to shelter proved a lifeline. 

Green, 41, said he moved into a shelter in 2020 after “a long list of misfortunes.” He was forced to leave a NYCHA apartment when his grandmother died because he was not on the lease. Not long after, he said, he had a heart attack, went to the hospital and was discharged into the shelter system. 

Green said he stayed at a series of shelters over the next 18 months before landing the apartment in March using a CityFHEPS housing voucher, a municipal subsidy that pays the bulk of his rent.

None of the shelters were great, he said, though he did manage to stay in a commercial hotel room during a chunk of the pandemic. But they were better than the street or the subways, his only other options, he said.

“It makes a big difference to have a roof. You can’t sleep on the trains,” Green said. “Being in the shelter, they give you three meals and a place to shower.”

Losing the right to shelter “would send the city into an uproar,” he added. “You have a whole bunch of people with nowhere to go but out on the streets.”