Forty Years of Fighting for Homeless New Yorkers

A group of adults marching with a sign that reads "Callahan Consent Decree... Keeping Homeless New Yorkers Alive Since 1981. Save the Right to Shelter."

In 2021, we commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Coalition for the Homeless and the right to shelter in New York City.

In 1979, Coalition founders filed the lawsuit Callahan v. Carey, which led to the landmark Callahan consent decree in 1981 making NYC the only city in the country with a guaranteed right to shelter.

Over the past four decades the Coalition has won a string of important legal victories securing the right to shelter for homeless women, winning court orders protecting the rights of homeless people with disabilities, securing medically appropriate housing for people living with HIV/AIDS, ensuring the right to vote for New Yorkers without homes, and much more.

A 1981 New York Times front page with an article pulled out and highlighted that reads "Pact Requires City to Shelter Homeless Men," by Robin Herman.

Since 1981, the right shelter has given more than one million homeless New Yorkers a way off the streets.

At the same time, our direct service programs have provided life-saving relief to countless New Yorkers. Over the past four decades, we have:

  • Delivered more than 8 million meals to hungry and homeless New Yorkers on the streets of the city.
  • Provided a quarter-million individuals with life-saving crisis services.
  • Prevented more than 15,000 households from being evicted and falling into homelessness – thus saving the City roughly a half-billion dollars in averted shelter costs.
  • Given 2,000 New Yorkers the safety and dignity of permanent housing.
  • Helped more than 1,700 homeless and low-income women find a pathway to employment and stability.
  • Welcomed more than 5,000 homeless children to Camp Homeward Bound, the first sleepaway camp in the country for homeless kids, and Bound for Success, our afterschool and summer day-camp program.
  • Distributed nearly 100,000 toys to homeless children during the holidays.
  • Distributed more than 41,000 backpacks filled with school supplies to kids in shelters.

Our renowned advocacy work has achieved historic investments in affordable and supportive housing as well as mental health services, and helped protect the rights of our most vulnerable neighbors through groundbreaking legislative victories. We have helped give voice to those who have had none, and have never relented in holding elected leaders’ feet to the fire to protect the rights of homeless and low-income New Yorkers.

Click here for an interactive timeline of the Coalition’s history.

Still, we have mixed emotions about this anniversary.

A sepia-toned photograph of a person in a red puffy winter jacket holding a large sign that says "Shelters Save Lives."

Looking back on 40 years of archival material, including excerpts from foundational reports on homelessness, news coverage, and images, garners a feeling of pride and immense gratitude for the many New Yorkers who have given their time and energy to our efforts and made life-saving impacts.

It’s also a heart-rending reminder of the work left to be done.

The crisis of homelessness is in many ways worse in 2021 than in 1981. New York City housing is less affordable, and there are a near-record number of New Yorkers sleeping in the shelter system. It is only because of the right to shelter that more than a million people have found a way off the streets.

In 2020, one in five New Yorkers lived in poverty and more than a million faced food insecurity. The devastating social, economic, and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have deepened poverty, accelerated displacement, and increased rates of disability, job loss, and psychiatric crisis.

But, as it has for 40 years, the right to shelter remains as a foundation of decency in our city, ensuring that all without homes have a place to go, a way off the streets. This right is as fundamental to NYC’s identity as the Empire State Building, the Apollo Theatre, or the Statue of Liberty. It defines us as a city of pragmatism, and of compassion.

We have been fighting to end homelessness for 40 years, and we won’t give up now.

Throughout 2021, we recounted some of the landmark victories that have been won for homeless New Yorkers on our social media channels. We expect you will feel the same complex mixture of compassion, awe, and frustration that inspires our work. We also hope you learn something.

Our mission now is the same as it was in 1981: to end homelessness in America’s most prosperous city.

We hope that you will help us make this a city in which the Coalition for the Homeless no longer has to exist, and we look forward to having something to truly celebrate: the day all New Yorkers have a home of their own.

How to Help

The pandemic has clearly demonstrated that housing is health care: Far too many Americans face dire risks to their health and safety due to homelessness or housing insecurity. The Federal government must renew the leadership role it once held and actualize housing as a human right.

Please send an email urging your representative to support the Ending Homelessness Act of 2021 to phase in universal rental assistance for all eligible households by 2030.

Follow along with #CFTH40 on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.