Two 3-D rendered mannequins, one yellow and one black, hugging themselves. They are upside-down in relation to one another.
Image credit: Javier Miranda on Unsplash

In what appears to be a situation spiraling toward head-on conflict, New York City Mayor Eric Adams has threatened to upend arguably one of the most progressive policies around homelessness and shelter implemented in the United States: the city’s so-called “Right to Shelter,” a policy which says that any individual without a place to sleep has the right to be placed in temporary emergency shelter, at the city’s expense.

Derived from a decades-old legal settlement, the policy has carried the force of law in New York City since the ’80s. 

But this October, the Adams administration filed a legal motion asking a judge to allow the city to “temporarily” suspend the Right to Shelter, arguing such a suspension is necessary to free up shelter space needed in part to help address the “crisis”—the term is controversial—of over 110,000 international migrants arriving in the city over the past year.

Advocates for the Right to Shelter responded immediately and forcefully. In a statement, the Legal Aid Society of New York and the New York Coalition for the Homeless—both parties to the consent decree that governs the Right to Shelter—issued a joint statement condemning the mayor’s action, calling it “shameful.”

“This abhorrent and unnecessary maneuver is a betrayal of the City’s commitment towards ensuring that no one is relegated to living—or dying—on the streets of our city,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, other influential figures have begun to converge against the policy: New York Governor Kathy Hochul has criticized it, implying it is incentivizing more migrants to come to New York; former president Bill Clinton has recently spoken out critically of the policy as well.

The city’s Right to Shelter has come under attack before.Taken together, these efforts represent the most concerted attempt to modify New York City’s Right to Shelter in many years—the consequences could be far-reaching for those experiencing homelessness across the city and the region.

The Right to Shelter policy, established by a legal consent decree in 1981, is a cornerstone of the city’s approach to homelessness and a beacon of progressive policy as the only one of its kind in practice in any large American city. (Massachusetts has a similar statewide policy, but it applies only to families, not individuals.)

The city’s Right to Shelter has come under attack before; in question now is whether it can withstand the current challenges being mounted by Adams and whether the needs of those experiencing homelessness generally will be pitted against the housing needs of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers arriving in New York. 

A Right to Shelter 

New York’s policy came out of a class action lawsuit filed in the late ’70s, arguing that the state’s constitution required that local government meet the needs of those without shelter. 

“It says the aid, care, and support of the needy are public concerns…and that they shall be attended to by the government. Not ‘may be,’ but ‘shall be.’ And that’s what the judge initially found so compelling,” says Dave Giffen, executive director of the New York nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless, which effectively oversees the city’s shelter system, among other programs. 

The lawsuit resulted in a 1982 agreement, or consent decree, in which New York City recognized what is now called the “Right to Shelter” as city policy. 

“In no way do we believe that shelter is the answer to homelessness. Housing is the answer to homelessness.”

“It’s truly a moral and philosophical grounding that sets New York City apart from other municipalities, that there is a real foundational belief here that nobody should be relegated to sleeping on the streets,” Giffen says. 

The policy, of course, comes at a significant financial cost to the city, which funds most of its shelter system through its budget—an expense Giffen says has proven its worth in saving lives and preventing homeless encampments at issue in other cities. 

Giffen calls Mayor Adams’ recent attempts to suspend or modify that decades-old policy misguided and unfortunate. 

“You see what happens if you don’t have a route to shelter. You see the vast encampments of people…living and dying out on the streets,” says Giffen. 

“In no way do we believe that shelter is the answer to homelessness,” adds Giffen. “Housing is the answer to homelessness. Shelters are necessary but not sufficient. And we are fighting for the day that we don’t need shelters. But the way to get there is by having adequate housing.”

“We cannot allow people to live on the streets of [the] city.”

Line in the Sand

In the meantime, Giffen and his fellow advocates are adamant that the present challenges posed by the influx of migrants should not be used to justify an erosion of the decades-old Right to Housing. 

Mayor Adams has characterized his administration’s attempts to modify the Right to Shelter agreement as temporary, emergency measures necessary to meet an immediate crisis. 

“No one thought about a humanitarian crisis when they first took this court case of right-to-shelter,” Adams told reporters in May. “We get an average of 500 people a day, and [the agreement] is not lifted.…And so this was a hard decision, but it’s the right decision.”

One might read in the mayor’s remarks a note of plaintiveness, an implied appeal to the notion that New York City already goes beyond its peer cities in providing shelter and that the challenges posed by the recent influx of migrants warrant a relaxing of the stricter interpretations of the city’s Right to Shelter policy. 

But homeless advocates, especially the Coalition for the Homeless, which effectively enforces the 1982 Right to Shelter agreement, are saying that the policy represents a moral and political stance from which they have no intention of retreating.  

“There is just a line in the sand that we…draw here, and say, ‘No, we’re not going to allow that to happen,’says Giffen. “We here at the Coalition believe that is something that we really cannot allow to be compromised in any way. And it’s critical that we defend that as a line that we cannot allow to be crossed. We cannot allow people to live on the streets of [the] city.”

Advocates for the homeless, like Giffen, as well as advocates for immigrants and the incoming migrants, have found common cause in rejecting the implied narrative of the Adams administration: that addressing the needs of one group must come at the cost of neglecting the needs of the other—and that accommodating both groups requires weakening the Right to Shelter.

“The Right to Shelter is what makes us different than other places in the country,” Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, told NPQ. “Would you rather have tens of thousands of people living in the street with their children or living [in] shelter for the time being?”

“Our shelter system has been broken for decades…since before asylum seekers started entering it,” adds Awawdeh. “What we need to do is get people the support they need to get out of shelter and into permanent housing.”

Indeed, a large part of the challenge facing the Adams administration is the unwillingness of other communities upstate to act as hosts to incoming migrants, easing the pressure on New York City’s shelter system. The challenge has been compounded by Governor Hochul’s refusal to utilize state resources to open migrant shelters upstate.

How the mayor’s attempts to modify the Right to Shelter agreement will play out remains undecided and uncertain for now. 

But whatever the eventual outcome of this mounting standoff, the repercussions will be felt far beyond New York City and the state. The city’s Right to Shelter policy is, after all, of outsized importance precisely because it essentially stands alone among other cities, and homeless advocates around the country are watching the unfolding conflict in New York closely. 

A step back for the city’s Right to Shelter would represent the erosion of one of the country’s most robust homelessness shelter policies, one that has so far failed to be replicated elsewhere. Still, a victory for the policy could signal its strength and potential reach beyond New York City.