The Callahan Legacy: Callahan v. Carey and the Legal Right to Shelter

The landmark victory in the 1979 lawsuit Callahan v. Carey paved the way for further legal victories that ensured the right to shelter for homeless men, women, children, and families in New York City.

Callahan v. Carey

When modern homelessness first emerged in the late 1970s, thousands of homeless New Yorkers were forced to fend for themselves on the streets, and many died or suffered terrible injuries. In 1979 a lawyer named Robert Hayes, who co-founded Coalition for the Homeless, brought a class action lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court against the City and State called Callahan v. Carey, arguing that a constitutional right to shelter existed in New York. In particular, the lawsuit pointed 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….”

The Coalition brought the lawsuit on behalf of all homeless men in New York City. The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Robert Callahan, was a homeless man suffering from chronic alcoholism whom Hayes had discovered sleeping on the streets in the Bowery section of Manhattan.

On December 5, 1979, the New York State Supreme Court ordered the City and State to provide shelter for homeless men in a landmark decision that cited Article XVII of the New York State Constitution.

In August 1981, after nearly two years of intensive negotiations between the plaintiffs and the government defendants, Callahan v. Carey was settled as a consent decree. By entering into the decree, the City and State agreed to provide shelter and board to all homeless men who met the need standard for welfare or who were homeless “by reason of physical, mental, or social dysfunction.” Thus the decree established a right to shelter for all homeless men in New York City, and also detailed the minimum standards which the City and State must maintain in shelters, including basic health and safety standards. In addition, Coalition for the Homeless was appointed monitor of shelters for homeless adults.

However, one tragic footnote to the history of the litigation is the fate of Robert Callahan himself. The autumn before the consent decree bearing his name was signed, Callahan died on the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side while sleeping rough on the streets. Thus Robert Callahan himself was one of the last homeless victims of an era with no legal right to shelter.

In the early years after the Callahan consent decree was entered, a number of subsequent proceedings were brought by both plaintiffs and the City. Plaintiffs challenged the City’s non-compliance with numerous provisions of the consent decree. These challenges have, among other things, secured orders requiring the City to open 400 new shelter beds within a 24-hour period; increase the plumbing facilities in certain shelters; and reduce the population in other shelters. In 1982, the City attempted to secure judicial approval for a lowering of the living standards in shelters. The court rejected this appeal as a “cruel and unacceptable hoax” on the homeless.

In the four decades since the Callahan consent decree was entered, numerous violations of the decree have been documented and several have resulted in court action. For instance, the court has instructed the City to address violations of the Callahan decree that involved insufficient shelter capacity for homeless men during the winter of 1996-1997, and persistent flooding of sleeping areas at a 400-bed shelter for homeless veterans in 1998. In recent years, plaintiffs and the Coalition have challenged the City’s persistent denial of stable shelter placements, through the use of single-night shelter placements for thousands of homeless men and women.

In 1999, the City attempted to modify the Callahan consent decree to allow implementation of State regulations that would terminate or deny shelter to homeless adults due to non-compliance with social service plans and administrative rules. In February 2000 the court issued a ruling prohibiting the City’s implementation of the shelter termination regulations. In October 2002, the City filed an appeal of that ruling, and in June 2003 the Appellate Division overturned the trial court’s earlier ruling. In October 2003 the Court of Appeals denied a request to review the appellate court ruling on the grounds that that ruling was not a final decision.

Therefore, in late 2003 the City of New York began implementing shelter termination rules for homeless single adults, but was required by court order to provide Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society with copies of each individual’s shelter termination notice, allowing the Coalition and the Legal Aid Society to provide legal assistance, housing assistance, and social services to threatened homeless adults.

In 2006 the City initiated legal action to stop providing shelter termination notices to the Coalition and the Legal Aid Society. After three years of litigation and appeals, in 2009 the New York State Court of Appeals found for plaintiffs and the Coalition, and ordered the City and State to continue providing copies of termination notices.

In 2009 the number of homeless individuals in municipal shelters rose dramatically, in part as a result of the historic economic recession and high unemployment. Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society warned City officials that the shelter system was at the breaking point and faced a severe shortage of beds, but City officials failed to heed the warnings.

By December 2009, Coalition shelter monitors had witnessed hundreds of homeless men and women forced to sleep on the floors of waiting rooms, or transported in the middle of the night to distant shelter facilities only to get a few hours of sleep before being shipped back. And due to the City’s failure to plan, these crisis conditions existed even before the onset of winter.

On December 9, 2009, the Coalition and the Legal Aid Society, with the pro bono legal assistance of attorneys from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale LLP, filed a motion in New York State Supreme Court seeking enforcement of the Callahan consent decree. On December 20th, Justice Judith Gische issued two vital temporary orders that required the City (1) to shelter vulnerable men and women and (2) to halt the systemic, repeated use of overnight-only beds — thus banning the City’s longstanding practice of “overnighting” hundreds of homeless men and women each night.

As a result of those orders, over the course of the 2009-2010 winter months the City was forced to add hundreds of shelter beds and to implement new procedures to ensure that homeless New Yorkers entering the shelter system get stable shelter placements. Indeed, by May 2010 when the motion was settled, the City had added more than 800 beds for homeless men and women to address a remarkable 12 percent increase in the adult shelter population. Once again, if not for the Callahan consent decree and the efforts of the Coalition and its partners, hundreds of homeless New Yorkers would have been denied emergency shelter during the coldest months of the year.

In November 2011, Mayor Bloomberg launched the most aggressive attack on the legal right to shelter for homeless New Yorkers since the Giuliani and Pataki years. The Bloomberg administration proposed new shelter eligibility rules for homeless single adults that would effectively deny shelter to thousands of homeless New Yorkers, including many living with mental illness and other serious health problems.  (for more background on the proposed rules, please look here.)

Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society immediately filed a legal challenge seeking to block the shelter denial rules, and the City agreed not to implement the new rules pending the legal challenge. The Coalition and the Legal Aid Society argued that the proposed rules violated the Callahan v. Carey consent decree and that the City had failed to comply with New York City Charter provisions governing the issuance of new rules and policies. In late November, the New York City Council filed a similar legal challenge based on the same City Charter provisions. At a December hearing, New York State Supreme Court Justice Judith Gische declared that she would first rule on the City Charter issues and address the Callahan issues pending the outcome of the procedural claims.

On February 21, 2012, Justice Gische ruled for the plaintiffs and the City Council that the City had failed to comply with City Charter requirements regarding the issuance of rules, and declared the proposed shelter eligibility rules “a nullity.” As of late February 2012, the City had declared its intention to appeal the trial court decision and the Coalition’s struggle against Mayor Bloomberg’s shelter denial rules continues.  In January 2013, oral arguments were held in the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division (First Department) on the City’s appeal of the trial court order.

The Legacy of Callahan: Legal Victories for Homeless Women, Children, and Families

When the Callahan consent decree was signed, then-Mayor Koch publicly promised that it would be applied equally to homeless men and women. (Callahan was filed on behalf of homeless men largely because of the vast differences in the men’s and women’s shelter systems in the late 1970s.) Several months after the Callahan decree was finalized, it became clear that shelters for homeless single women were not meeting the qualitative standards set by the decree.

In February 1982, a new case was brought on behalf of homeless women, Eldredge v. Koch. The New York State Supreme Court ruled that the Callahan decree must be applied to shelters for homeless women. On appeal, the Appellate Division ruled that more evidence was needed on the question of specific violations (the City reduced shelter capacities and increased plumbing facilities after the case was filed), but affirmed that the Callahan decree applies to homeless women. The Eldredge case is now used, much like Callahan, to challenge sub-standard conditions in women’s shelters.

In 1983, attorney Steven Banks of the Legal Aid Society sought to protect homeless families with children with the filing of the landmark McCain v. Koch lawsuit.

The McCain litigation involving homeless families continued for over two decades. The plaintiffs and the Legal Aid Society won numerous protections for vulnerable children and families, including a landmark 1986 appellate court ruling affirming the right to shelter for homeless families, improved conditions in shelter facilities, and court orders prohibiting the City from forcing homeless children and families to sleep on the floors and benches of intake offices.

In related litigation, the Legal Aid Society won additional protections for children and families. In Cosentino v. Perales, for instance, the court ruled that children could not be separated from their parents and placed into foster care solely due to the family’s lack of housing.

In late 2008, after years of City officials’ refusal to agree to an enforceable legal right to shelter for families, the City and State of New York finally agreed to a settlement of litigation involving homeless families. The final judgment in Boston v. City of New York ensures the legal right to shelter for homeless families with children.

Over the past four decades, Coalition for the Homeless, working in close partnership with the Legal Aid Society, has defended the right to shelter against numerous threats by City and State officials.  Learn more about the ongoing struggle to defend the right to shelter here.

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