Remembering Yvonne McCain, A True Hero for Homeless New Yorkers

Yvonne McCain, lead plaintiff in a historic lawsuit that ensured the right to shelter for homeless children and families, passed away this week. She will be remembered as a true New York hero.

McCain, a survivor of domestic violence who was forced to endure horrendous conditions in welfare hotels while seeking shelter for herself and her children, became the lead plaintiff in the landmark 1983 lawsuit McCain v. Koch (later v. Dinkinsv. Giuliani, and v. Bloomberg). The McCain case built on the legal victory in Callahan v. Carey, which had established the legal right to shelter for homeless adults, and argued that homeless families and children also deserved decent emergency shelter.

The McCain litigation involving homeless families continued for over two decades. The plaintiffs and the Legal Aid Society, which brought the case, won numerous protections for vulnerable children and families, including a landmark 1986 appellate court ruling affirming the right to shelter for homeless families. Over two decades the amazing legal team, led by attorney Steve Banks, won 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.

Finally, after years of opposition by City officials — and particularly virulent opposition from Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, who sought to abolish the legal right to shelter — the McCain case was settled in 2008 in the landmark Boston v. City of New York case. The settlement enshrines the legal right to shelter for homeless families and children.

Steve Banks, who now serves as Attorney-in-Chief of the Legal Aid Society (as well as counsel to the Coalition), summed up Yvonne McCain’s legacy in a moving obituary published in today’s New York Times:

“The import of the settlement, and in a sense Ms. McCain’s life, is that no matter who the mayor is now or in the future, tens of thousands of homeless children and their families are entitled to a roof over their heads.”

McCain ultimately secured a subsidized apartment in Staten Island, got a college degree and a longstanding job at a community college — opportunities that current Bloomberg administration policies deny to thousands of homeless families.

As the Times writes:

The success of her case surprised her. When the lawsuit was first filed, Ms. McCain recalled in 2003, “I thought we were going to get new mattresses and guardrails on the windows and that’s it.”

“I never imagined that this suit would end up being so helpful to so many people.”