Hundreds gathered in lower Manhattan Tuesday to rally in defense of New York City’s shelter rights, of growing concern among advocates as temperatures begin to drop.

Adi Talwar

On Tuesday morning, housing activists rallied in front of the National Museum of the American Indian in Downtown Manhattan before marching to City Hall.

On Dec. 5, 1979, a landmark state court ruling—along with a later decree and other subsequent court decisions—established a right to shelter in New York City, guaranteeing a bed to anyone in need, at least temporarily.

On the 42nd anniversary of that decision Tuesday, hundreds gathered in lower Manhattan to rally in defense of that right. Since spring, Mayor Eric Adams has sought to relieve the city from its obligation to shelter homeless adults, citing the arrival of tens of thousands of new immigrants since 2022 that’s pushed the system to capacity.

But supporters of the decree say it’s a life-saving and essential part of the city’s social safety net, and that weakening the right to shelter would lead to more homeless New Yorkers on the streets as winter sets in.

Adi Talwar

“For over four decades we have had a right to shelter in New York City, and it’s one of the things that makes us different than every other city in this country. It’s one of the things that makes our city great,” said Christine Quinn, former NYC Council speaker and now the director of Win, a homeless shelter provider for families. “It sends a message that we care about each other.”

Violations of New York City’s shelter rights are of growing concern among advocates as temperatures begin to drop. Grappling with the cold are adults forced to leave their shelters at the expiration of either 30 or 60 days—part of Mayor Adams’ ongoing effort to free up space in the shelter system. 

Adi Talwar

Since late October, immigrants seeking assistance after being evicted from their shelter have been sent to 185 East 7th St. in the East Village, a former school building that the city has dubbed a “reticketing” center

There, people are offered tickets out of New York City, though data obtained by the news outlet THE CITY shows most are declining the offer. For those requesting another shelter bed, the city set up a so-called “waiting area” in the Bronx. 

Adi Talwar

Participants rallied in front of the National Museum of the American Indian before marching to City Hall.

For multiple days starting the Sunday after Thanksgiving, amid freezing temperatures, long lines snaked outside of the St. Brigid School, resulting in what the Legal Aid Society deemed a right to shelter violation. 

Legal Aid and its client, the Coalition for the Homeless, are tasked with enforcing the city’s shelter rights stemming from the 1979 decision in Callahan v. Carey. They are currently in court-ordered mediation with the city and state. 

While the Callahan decree is not explicit about how quickly an adult must access a shelter bed when they seek one, they must be accommodated reasonably quickly, according to Josh Goldfein of Legal Aid. 

“A person needs to get a bed to sleep in at night,” he said. “We understand it takes some time for them to assign people to beds in a system that’s constantly in flux. But I think we can all agree that if someone comes in the morning and they are still there the following morning, they did not get a bed.” 

Adi Talwar

In the week following Thanksgiving, Goldfein said, the city met with state Judge Gerald Lebovits and presented a new policy where people can hold their place in the St. Brigid cue without standing in line, freeing them up to potentially go to the waiting facility in Bathgate in the Bronx. 

Meanwhile, advocates are looking ahead with trepidation, as immigrant families with children are expected to begin hitting 60-day shelter stay limits. The city has issued notices to about 3,300 families with kids so far, according to City Hall, with the first 250 expected to expire around the end of the year. 

Adi Talwar

There were 14,293 immigrant families with children in the city’s care as of Oct. 31, 60 percent of whom were in Department of Homeless Services shelters and excluded from the removal policy. 

At Tuesday’s rally, advocates called for the city and state to take a number of other policy actions aimed at reducing homelessness without weakening shelter rights. 

NY Sane, a coalition that helped organize the event, called for Gov. Kathy Hochul to override orders passed by more than 30 jurisdictions across the state blocking New York City from sheltering newly-arrived immigrants there. 

The organization also pressed officials to help more shelter households move into permanent housing by resolving bureaucratic obstacles in the city’s rental vouchers program, and for Hochul to implement a new state housing subsidy accessible even to noncitizens.

Above: NYC Comptroller Brad Lander and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams speaking at Tuesday’s rally.

“This is not only a moral issue,” City Comptroller Brad Lander said at the rally. “When we welcome people here, when we let them have shelter and a path to home, they flourish and thrive and become New York workers who create the economic value of this city.”