We must keep N.Y.’s right to shelter: 42 years after the agreement, the compact has to be maintained

In the late 1970s, Robert Callahan slept on the streets of the Bowery. He was destitute and lived with substance abuse, which made it difficult for him to secure and maintain permanent housing. At the time, there weren’t many options for someone like him because the state and the city did not believe that they had a legal obligation to help or house people experiencing homelessness.

Callahan was experiencing homelessness before right to shelter protections were court-ordered in New York, but he became the lead plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit that would greatly improve the way unhoused New Yorkers are treated. Callahan died before the case was resolved, but his name is now shorthand for the right to shelter in New York.

In 1979, the very first decision in Callahan vs. Carey cited Article XVII of the state Constitution (which mandates that New York State and its political subdivisions like the counties and New York City have a duty to provide for the “aid, care and support of the needy”) to find that the state and city are required to provide shelter to unhoused men, thereby enforcing the right to shelter. Subsequent rulings in other cases made it clear that the Constitution also mandates the provision of shelter to unhoused women and families.

Today, Aug. 26, marks the 42nd anniversary of the date that the court and the parties finalized the Callahan consent decree. Since then, the protections it has offered have served as an inviolable baseline of humanity and decency in our city.

But on the anniversary of this landmark case, its protections are at risk. Mayor Adams asked a judge to suspend the right. And Gov. Hochul is impeding the city’s ability to provide shelter by, among other things, permitting counties throughout the New York State to undermine her declaration of a state of emergency by issuing their own conflicting declarations to keep out new arrivals who desperately need shelter.

Just three weeks ago we saw what happens when the government turns its back on the right to shelter: hundreds of human beings were left sleeping outside on 45th St. just across from Grand Central Terminal. That is in no one’s interest.

All three levels of government can and must do better, otherwise New York will soon see the emergence of vast tent encampments like we see in places like Los Angeles or San Francisco where there is no right to shelter. More Robert Callahans will end up on, and die on, our streets. We must not allow this to happen, and the right to shelter is frankly the least we can do to protect the lives and wellbeing of those without homes. It is a floor, not a ceiling.

As chief attorney of the civil practice of The Legal Aid Society, which represents the Callahan plaintiffs, and as executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, the court-appointed shelter monitor in Callahan, we know firsthand just how dangerous and ill-advised attempts to overturn or undermine the right to shelter are. We also know that all three levels of government have many other viable options for addressing the migrant crisis, including expediting work authorization for new arrivals and helping secure housing for New Yorkers currently in or at risk of entering shelters.

Thousands of homeless New Yorkers needlessly languish in shelters — sometimes for years — because the city and state are failing to address the many obstacles to accessing permanent affordable and supportive housing. Emergency shelters should be used for just that: emergencies. If more New Yorkers had access to permanent housing, we would have vastly more capacity for dealing with what is now, in fact, an emergency.

Solving this situation requires effective and humane leadership from city, state, and the federal governments and, crucially, coordination among them. What it does not require, however, is a reversal of decades-old protections that have saved countless lives from being lost on our streets. Eviscerating the constitutionally-mandated right to shelter protections will relegate tens of thousands of vulnerable people, including new arrivals, to bedding down in public spaces, exposed to the elements, just as Robert Callahan was forced to do four decades ago, leading to his tragic death.

Ignoring what we’ve learned over the past 42 years — that housing is a human right, and providing it to those in need benefits all of us in the long term — is a grave mistake and an abdication of our legal and moral responsibility that will only exacerbate the suffering of longtime New Yorkers and recent arrivals alike.

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