For homeless people, shelter from the elements can be a matter of life and death. The right to shelter is a vital legal protection for homeless individuals, families and children. Without this crucial safeguard, vulnerable homeless people would be at severe risk of death or injury on the streets and in other public spaces.
More than three decades ago, Coalition for the Homeless won a landmark legal victory that established the right to shelter for homeless people in New York City.
When modern homelessness first emerged in the late 1970s, thousands of homeless New Yorkers were forced to fend for themselves on the streets, in parks, in the subway system and in other public spaces. At that time, hundreds of unsheltered homeless people died each year, many from hypothermia and other cold-related injuries.
In 1979, the founders of Coalition for the Homeless brought a class-action lawsuit, Callahan v. Carey, against the City and State of New York. The case, which was brought on behalf of homeless men, argued that a constitutional right to shelter existed in New York.
The lawsuit pointed in particular to Article XVII of the New York State Constitution, which declares that “the aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions….” Article XVII was adopted by New York voters in 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression, and has provided a vital protection to impoverished New Yorkers ever since.
In August 1981, after nearly two years of intensive negotiations, Callahan v. Carey was settled as a consent decree, enshrining New York City’s legal right to shelter for homeless men. Two years later, the Coalition brought another lawsuit, Eldredge v. Koch, which extended the right to shelter to homeless women. And that same year, the Legal Aid Society brought a right-to-shelter lawsuit, McCain v. Koch, on behalf of homeless families with children.
The right to shelter protects thousands of homeless New Yorkers every day. The fundamental legal protections won by Callahan v. Carey and subsequent cases ensure that individuals and families in need have access to shelter from the elements as they regain stability in their lives and seek permanent housing.