Thirty Years of the Legal Right to Shelter in New York City

December 5th marks an important anniversary: Thirty years since the first landmark court ruling in Callahan v. Carey affirming the legal right to shelter for homeless New Yorkers.

When modern homelessness first emerged in the late 1970s, the City of New York’s rudimentary emergency services routinely failed to provide shelter to the rapidly growing number of homeless people — people like Robert Callahan, a homeless man who’d been forced to sleep on the streets of the Bowery. In those early days of modern homelessness, countless homeless people died or suffered injury on the streets of New York.

In 1979, Robert Hayes, co-founder of Coalition for the Homeless and a volunteer lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, brought a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Robert Callahan and other homeless men. Hayes argued that Article XVII of the New York State Constitution required the City and State to provide shelter to homeless men.

On December 5, 1979, New York State Supreme Court Justice Andrew Tyler issued the first decision in Callahan v. Carey (pdf), ordering the City and State to provide shelter for homeless men and immediately to open 750 new shelter beds for homeless men. As the New York Times wrote a few days later (pdf), the Rev. Edward M. O’Brien of the Holy Name Center on Bleeker Street “said in the suit that during previous winters, ‘indigent, homeless men living on or near the Bowery have suffered frostbite and, in several instances, death from exposure.'”

Justice Tyler’s decision cited the New York State Constitution‘s Article XVII, which dates from 1938 and which states:

“The aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions, and in such manner and by such means, as the Legislature may from time to time determine.”

Amidst the current economic downturn, it is more important than ever to remember what a vital protection that constitutional language is.  Indeed, Article XVII was itself borne out of the severe poverty and economic dislocation of the Great Depression, the last period of widespread homelessness.  In 1938, New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia argued strenuously on behalf of amending the State Constitution to create this important safeguard.  As the New York Times wrote, in an article published during the welfare reform debates of the past decade:

“If the welfare system were fixed, [La Guardia] predicted optimistically, not only would the old, the sick and the needy be better off in the long run, but government would save money and the overall economy would get better….Perhaps recalling his tenement childhood, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York believed that government had a sacred duty to protect the unfortunate. And so…he urged the Committee on Social Welfare at the New York State Constitutional Convention to adopt an amendment declaring that the state had an obligation to care for its sick and needy.”

As New York City confronts record homelessness and rising unemployment, we can all be grateful that compassionate, forward-thinking leaders who lived through another historic economic crisis fought for safeguards to protect the most vulnerable New Yorkers.

And thirty years after the first court ruling in Callahan v. Carey, we can also be grateful that one legacy of Article XVII — the legal right to shelter for homeless New Yorkers — has saved countless lives and ensured that hundreds of thousands of children and adults who’ve experienced homelesssness are assured shelter from the elements.

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