Proven Solutions

By stabilizing people through shelter, moving them into permanent housing, and implementing assistance programs to keep them in their housing, we can not only reduce, but eliminate, homelessness in New York City.

Right To Shelter

Housing-Based Solutions

Prevention & Stability

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.

Since modern homelessness began more than thirty years ago, research and experience have overwhelmingly shown that investments in permanent housing are extraordinarily effective in reducing homelessness — as well as being cost-effective.

Many of the most successful housing-based policies designed to address the homelessness crisis — in particular, permanent supportive housing for individuals living with disabilities and other special needs — were pioneered in New York City and have been replicated throughout the country. Numerous research studies have consistently confirmed that long-term housing assistance not only successfully reduces homelessness — it is also less expensive than shelter and other institutional care. Proven housing-based policies include:

  • Federal housing assistance: Federal housing programs are one of the most successful housing-based solutions to reduce homelessness. The two largest federal housing programs are public housing and federal housing vouchers, known as Housing Choice Vouchers or Section 8 vouchers. Housing vouchers allow low-income households to rent modest market-rate housing of their choice and provide a flexible subsidy that adjusts with the family’s income over time. Studies show that public housing and federal housing vouchers are highly successful at reducing family homelessness and in ensuring that these families remain stably housed out of the shelter system.
  • Permanent supportive housing: Pioneered in New York City in the 1980s, permanent supportive housing has now proven to be a successful and cost-effective solution to the homelessness crisis. The supportive housing model combines affordable housing assistance with vital support services for individuals living with mental illness, HIV/AIDS or other serious health problems. Moreover, numerous research studies have shown that permanent supportive housing costs less than other forms of emergency and institutional care. The landmark 1990 City-State “New York/New York Agreement,” which has been renewed twice, is the premier example of a permanent supportive housing initiative that successfully reduced homelessness in New York City and saved taxpayer dollars that would otherwise have been spent on costly shelters and hospitalizations.
  • “Housing first”: Another proven solution developed in New York City and replicated nationwide is the “housing first” approach to street homelessness, which builds on the success of permanent supportive housing. The “housing first” approach involves moving long-term street homeless individuals — the majority of whom are living with mental illness, substance abuse disorders and other serious health problems — directly into subsidized housing and then linking them to support services, either on-site or in the community. Research studies have found that the majority of long-term street homeless people moved into “housing first” apartments remain stably housed and experience significant improvements in their health problems. Much like permanent supportive housing, the “housing first” approach is far less costly than emergency and institutional care, such as shelters, hospitals and correctional facilities.

The fundamental cause of homelessness is the widening housing affordability gap. In New York City, that gap has widened significantly over the past decades, which have seen the loss of hundreds of thousands of units of affordable rental housing. At the same time that housing affordability has worsened, government at every level has cut back on already-inadequate housing assistance for low-income people and has reduced investments in building and preserving affordable housing. Finally, the weakening of rent regulation laws, which help keep around half of all rental apartments in New York City affordable, has accelerated the loss of low-cost housing. To address New York City’s wide housing affordability gap, the Federal, State and City governments must significantly increase investments in affordable rental housing, with a significant portion targeted to homeless families and individuals. Similarly, strengthening rent regulation laws would preserve affordable housing and protect tenants, allowing them to keep their homes.

One essential approach to reducing homelessness is to prevent it. Another is to ensure that formerly homeless families and individuals can maintain housing stability.

There are several programs that have been proven successful in preventing homelessness for low-income families and individuals. One successful approach involves eviction-prevention grants to help tenants at risk of becoming homeless pay back rent and remain in their apartments. As apartment rents continue to rise and earnings for workers at the low end of the pay scale stagnate, more of our neighbors find themselves on the border of eviction. The overwhelming majority are working families who fell behind in their rent after experiencing sudden medical costs, a death in the family or loss of employment. Providing financial assistance for rental arrears helps potentially homeless families stay in their apartments.

Another successful approach to homelessness prevention involves legal services for low-income tenants in housing court. Housing courts and the legal system in general can be extremely intimidating, even more so to families and individuals under financial stress struggling to make ends meet. In New York City, more than 90 percent of tenants in housing court do not have legal representation, while nearly all landlords have lawyers. Programs that provide legal representation in housing court for low-income tenants facing eviction have proven to be successful and cost-effective. Most tenants assisted by these legal services programs are able to remain in their homes and avoid the costly shelter system.

Prevention also involves policies and programs that help vulnerable people fall through the cracks of government bureaucracies. For example, effective discharge planning that includes housing assistance can help youth who are aging out of foster care, or low-income people living with mental illness who are leaving hospitals, or people exiting correction institutions, avoid homelessness.

Once they’ve left homelessness for permanent housing, many formerly homeless families and individuals can benefit from support services to help maintain housing stability. This can include services like job training, child care and community-based counseling services. More fundamentally, enhancing housing stability for poor and low-income renters involves broader policy changes including living-wage jobs; access to affordable health care; and adequate public benefits for people living with disabilities.