The Callahan deal is not a victory

Last May, Mayor Adams and Gov. Hochul initiated an attack on New York’s legal right to shelter for single adults based upon two faulty premises: first, that the city needed more flexibility in responding to the influx of thousands of asylum seekers than allowed under the 1981 Callahan consent decree, and second, that removing or limiting that right would result in fewer new arrivals coming to the city.

The salvo was unnecessary, as the city and advocates had already been in negotiations for more than a year about how to provide shelter quickly for so many people, and the city was given all the flexibility it needed to utilize facilities that were not strictly compliant with Callahan rules while still keeping people safe.

The second assertion, that eliminating the right to shelter would stop the inflow of new arrivals, failed to acknowledge that people come here because of economic opportunity, kinship networks, cultural diversity and tolerance, and all the other reasons that explain the large green statue in New York Harbor.

But the mayor and governor dug in, and for the past 10 months the Legal Aid Society and pro bono counsel representing the Coalition for the Homeless as plaintiffs in Callahan engaged in a lengthy and heated battle to defend the right to shelter.

The settlement agreement signed last week is just that: a settlement. No reasonable person would call it a victory — except that it does, critically, keep the Callahan consent decree intact. The agreement creates a temporary crisis plan for single adult new arrivals, and permits the city to refuse to provide more than 30 days of shelter (60 days for people under 23) to those not making efforts to find other lodging. It also precludes the city from placing people in “waiting rooms” to sleep for days in chairs, with no access to showers or meals.

Our bottom line has never changed: No one who needs shelter must ever be relegated to the streets. Justice Gerald Lebovits also made that clear when he signed the agreement, stating: “the provisions of this settlement…do not take away from the protections that Callahan already provides and will continue to provide to ensure that single adults in the city can always obtain shelter.”

But we are not naïve. We know what the city’s goal is: to quickly reduce the number of new arrivals in the shelter system.

That’s why this settlement is not the end of the fight; it’s the start. The Callahan consent decree was signed 43 years ago, and not a day has gone by since then that we have not had to fight tooth and nail to get the city to comply. The Coalition in fact helped more than 3,000 individuals obtain their rights and navigate the shelter system last year alone.

This settlement will not change that. Our work to ensure that no one who needs shelter is turned away continues. But both longer-term New Yorkers and new arrivals must be given help to move from shelters into stable housing.

The governor’s performance on this front has been nothing short of disgraceful. Refugee resettlement is traditionally a state function, and yet the governor shows no interest in making even her own Migrant Relocation Assistance Program work. Resettlement must become a priority of the governor’s office

We are relieved that the legal battle over Callahan is over. We are also concerned that, when criticized about the city’s failure to provide shelter to those still in need, the mayor reverts to touting how many people the city has served to date. The city deserves credit for finding tens of thousands more beds, but it’s perhaps premature for the mayor to hang a “Mission Accomplished!” banner. Too many still require help recovering from their arduous journeys here and resettling into our community.

We must remember that, historically, every wave of immigration to New York has resulted in tremendous benefits to our city and state — to its culture, diversity, and of course, to its economy. This current influx should be viewed not as a crisis, but as a gift — especially given that there are roughly 460,000 unfilled jobs in New York State.

Let’s accept the gift, and show the world that New Yorkers will not turn our backs on those in need, will not leave people to sleep on the streets, and will help our new neighbors settle into their new lives with us. That is what we should be celebrating.

Giffen is executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless. Holder is chief attorney of the civil practice at the Legal Aid Society.