November 2, 2011; Source: New York TimesIn 1983, Yvonne McCain was the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit McCain v. Koch against the City of New York, establishing the right of homeless families with children to shelter. Previously, the courts had ruled that the city could not deny emergency shelter to single homeless men and homeless women but had not ruled on the city’s obligation to homeless families. Although McCain and her co-plaintiffs won the case at the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in 1986, proceedings continued for the next 22 years, basically aimed at the question of what constituted adequate emergency shelter for homeless families, until both sides—the plaintiffs represented by the Legal Aid Society—reached a settlement in 2008.

The personal story of Yvonne McCain is particularly poignant. She and her children had been evicted from their Brooklyn apartment in 1982 as retribution for her not paying the rent because of needed repairs that the landlord refused to make. For those who may not be aware of this, too many landlords “thank” tenant leaders for pointing out problems and trying to apply landlord/tenant and building standards laws by evicting them. The McCain household ended up in a miserable Herald Square hotel. During the course of the case, McCain, a survivor of domestic abuse, and her children were moved from shelter to shelter, and at one point her estranged husband learned where she was and broke her nose. She was finally given a two-bedroom apartment on Staten Island in 1996, which she loved, and she told her daughter that she was “never going to leave it, never going to be homeless again.”

Yvonne McCain’s willingness to be a lead plaintiff in this case ultimately led to the many programs that nonprofit homeless housing providers access to help the tens of thousands of others in New York City in situations similar to hers. Some nonprofits may not realize it, but their emergency shelter programs in New York City might be traced back to this modest woman’s role. But there’s more. The suit wasn’t aimed at merely warehousing homeless families in temporary shelters but also at providing decent shelter instead of Upper West Side or Lower East Side flophouses. As McCain’s personal history demonstrated, the best solution for a homeless family isn’t a shelter but a home. Her lawsuit and her personal history validate the theory of the “Housing First” model, that putting people into permanent housing and linking them to a network of services is much more effective—and actually more cost-efficient—than dumping homeless families into shelters.—Rick Cohen