Today is Right to Shelter Day

“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.”

These words, from Article XVII of the New York State Constitution, formed the basis of the argument made by the founders of the Coalition for the Homeless when they filed the Callahan v. Carey lawsuit: That New York has a legal obligation to provide basic shelter to anyone who lacks a safe place to sleep. 

On December 5, 1979, while this lawsuit was still being argued, the New York State Supreme Court issued its first injunction ordering the City and State to provide shelter for homeless men – the first milestone in a series of critical victories by the Coalition and The Legal Aid Society that later extended the right to shelter to single women and to families. 

Today, on the 38th anniversary of that first ruling and 36 years after the Callahan Consent Decree was ultimately signed, we celebrate the landmark ruling that has saved more than a million New Yorkers from the perils of living on the street.

December 5 has thus been designated as “Right to Shelter Day,” when we acknowledge the tremendous impact of this critical right.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the 1982 Eldredge v. Koch case, in which the New York State Supreme Court ruled that the Callahan decree must be applied to homeless women – thereby extending the right to safe, clean shelters.

Tonight, as a result of this victory, 4,211 single adult homeless women will be able to sleep with a roof over their heads rather than on the cold streets. The need has never been greater: The percentage of all homeless adults that are women has grown from 35 percent to nearly 50 percent over the past four decades, largely due to the increase in homeless families headed by women.

Listen to some homeless women discuss what the right to shelter means to them here.

New York City is the only place in the country with such a robust right to shelter, which is why we do not have the massive, heartbreaking tent encampments commonly found in so many other large cities. 

The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that on a single night in 2016, an impressive 96 percent of the 73,523 homeless people in New York City were sheltered, compared with only 25 percent of the 43,854 homeless people in Los Angeles.

A shelter is of course not a permanent home, and so the Coalition consistently advocates for the proven, housing-based solutions that are the only real, long-term answer to modern mass homelessness. But for those who do find themselves without a home, the guarantee of a safe, warm place to sleep at night provides the necessary foundation to help them piece their lives back together. As harsh winter weather descends upon the city, the right to shelter guarantees lifesaving protection from the elements for our homeless neighbors.

On Right to Shelter Day, we encourage you to learn about this important legal milestone and hear from some of the men, women, and children who have benefitted from the vital safety net provided by our fine and compassionate city.