New York City’s shelter system has housed thousands of asylum-seekers this year, yet Mayor Eric Adams has recently sought to modify a consent decree requiring that the city must provide a bed for anyone in need. This comes on the heels of his administration announcing that single adult migrants would have to vacate shelters after 30 days.
“With more than 122,700 asylum seekers having come through our intake system since the spring of 2022, and projected costs of over $12 billion for three years, it is abundantly clear that the status quo cannot continue,” Adams said. (The city comptroller’s office has put the figure closer to $5 billion.)
The 1981 decree popularly known as the “right to shelter” was instituted after Robert Callahan, a short-order cook struggling with alcoholism and housing insecurity, took Robert Hayes on as his lawyer and sued the city over his living conditions. Hayes, an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell and a member of the Catholic Workers movement, successfully argued that a clause in the state constitution–promising “aid, care and support of the needy”–included the right to a bed.
Certain locals have made clear in the past number of months that they vehemently disagree, protesting new shelter construction for incoming migrants in boroughs ranging from Queens to Staten Island. Migrants were also temporarily forced to sleep on the street outside the Roosevelt Hotel. Others, pointing to NYC’s much-vaunted identity as a city built by immigrants, have condemned the vitriol directed at the asylum-seekers.
Adams has generally taken the side of anti-shelter protestors, including by claiming that new arrivals have forced him to enact budget cuts. His petition to the Manhattan Supreme Court to ask for more “flexibility” in the right-to-shelter, therefore, is only his latest salvo.
Hochul, too, has proclaimed to CNN’s Abby Phillip that the right-to-shelter decree isn’t an “unlimited universal right or obligation on [New York City] to have to house literally the entire world.” Seleney Gay Elsberg, an attorney representing the governor, wrote to a judge overseeing Adam’s petition that “the current situation is not sustainable.”
It is so far unclear what ruling the court will hand down, but rights groups such as the Legal Aid Society have already publicly denounced the politicians for the petition. “This abhorrent and unnecessary maneuver is a betrayal of the City’s commitment towards ensuring that no one is relegated to living—or dying—on the streets of our city,” the organization said in a statement released jointly with the Coalition for the Homeless.
Two senior staffers at the Legal Aid Society also wrote an August 28 op-ed in the Daily News on the matter, essentially predicting that modifying the consent decree would lead to a massive increase in New York City’s unsheltered homeless population.
”All three levels of government can and must do better, otherwise New York will soon see the emergence of vast tent encampments like we see in places like Los Angeles or San Francisco where there is no right to shelter. More Robert Callahans will end up on, and die on, our streets. We must not allow this to happen, and the right to shelter is frankly the least we can do to protect the lives and wellbeing of those without homes. It is a floor, not a ceiling,” they warned.