Today’s Read: Behind New York’s Right to Shelter Policy

There has been increased attention lately on the growing number of homeless people bedding down on our city’s streets and subways, but in fact the vast majority of homeless New Yorkers sleep each night in shelters (more than 58,000 last night alone). This is because New York City, uniquely, has a legal mandate to provide shelter for anyone who is homeless. Without the groundbreaking Callahan v. Carey litigation – which also established the Coalition for the Homeless as the court-appointed independent monitor of the shelter system for single adults – untold thousands more men, women and children would be left to fend for themselves on our streets.

The right to shelter was established in 1979, when the lawyer Robert Hayes teamed up with Kim Hopper, Ellen Baxter and other activists to bring a class-action lawsuit on behalf of homeless New Yorkers (and to found the Coalition for the Homeless). The argument was that Article 17 the New York State Constitution required the government to care for people in need – and that providing adequate shelter was part of that obligation. The lawsuit resulted in the parties agreeing to the “Callahan Consent Decree” establishing the legal right to shelter for homeless single men and guaranteeing certain conditions and standards in the shelters. Subsequent lawsuits established the right to shelter for single women and for families with children.

Noel King recently interviewed Hayes and Hopper for Marketplace:

To Hayes, who is currently the CEO of the nonprofit Community Healthcare Network, it was simple. “Look,” he said, “you see a problem. If you’re a journalist, you write about it; if you’re a poet, you probably write a poem about it.”

And if you’re a lawyer, you take someone to court. Hayes sequestered himself in the basement of the NYU law library and emerged with a relatively simple argument. In 1938, during the Depression, New York rewrote its state constitution, adding a provision that states, “the aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state….”

That was to be Hayes’ argument in court.

“At the end of the day, the best argument I had was, your honor, the word ‘shall’ provide emergency shelter,” Hayes remembered. “Shall means shall; that’s not complicated.”

Callahan v. Carey went before a judge in 1979. Hugh Carey, the defendant, was New York’s governor. Hayes was also suing Mayor Ed Koch and the city’s Department of Social Services. The plaintiff, Robert Callahan, was a homeless man whom Hayes had met on the Bowery.