Kathy Hochul. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
By Greg B. Smith | October 11, 2023
Mayor Eric Adams has asked a judge to let him suspend the city’s 42-year-old obligation to provide a bed to anyone who requests it, as migrants overwhelm the city’s shelter system.
Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday enthusiastically embraced New York City’s request to temporarily suspend the city’s decades-old “right to shelter” agreement in response to the wave of asylum seekers who have inundated the system.
Last week, Mayor Eric Adams asked a court to let the city pause the protocol, enacted in the early 1980s, that requires the city to provide shelter to anyone who requests it. Lawyers for the mayor said the temporary suspension would be triggered only if the number of adults entering the system spiked to unusually high levels.
“The city has proposed a measured and appropriate modification to the [right to shelter] Consent Decree,” Faith Gay, the attorney retained by Hochul to represent the state’s position in the case, wrote in a letter to the court. She noted that the Hochul administration agrees “that flexibility is imperative to address the surge of migrant arrivals.”
“Right to shelter” was first enacted in a 1981 consent decree under a lawsuit known as Callahan v. Carey, brought by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of a homeless man named Robert Callahan who died before the rule took effect. The right initially applied only to single adults, but later cases expanded shelter guarantees to include adult couples and families with children.
The protocol had remained essentially unchallenged until earlier this year, when Adams first began trying to change the rules to help him manage the continuing stream of migrants that began entering New York City in spring 2022 and continued through this week.
Adams’ team now estimates more than 110,000 migrants — first from Central and South America and now from other locales, including Africa and the Middle East — have arrived in the city via bus and plane, seeking shelter. Many await asylum applications that will allow them to stay legally in the U.S.
The ever-streaming influx has overwhelmed the city’s already overburdened shelter system, forcing the city to place migrants in hotels and tented shelters from Randall’s Island to a parking lot at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center on the Queens–Long Island border. Adams has said the continued migrant wave will “destroy” the city if help from the federal government is not made available.
In May, Adams first filed an emergency request with Manhattan State Supreme Court asking to let the city halt the Callahan case’s “right to shelter” in instances when city officials determine sufficient resources are not available. Legal Aid Society lawyers involved in the case predicted the modification would send the city back to the old days of homeless people forced to live in the street.
The judge hearing the case, Manhattan Justice Erika Edwards, had not yet acted on that request when Adams tried a different approach last week, asking instead to let him temporarily suspend “right to shelter” when the number of single adults applying for shelter spikes for a two- week period.
The mayor said the modification would give the city flexibility to better handle the intake of hundreds of migrants every day.
Edwards then recused herself, citing unspecified facts that she said could raise questions about her objectivity in the case. A new judge, Acting Supreme Court Justice Gerald Lebovits, was assigned to the case last week.
Last week, the Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless predicted that Adams’ effort to suspend “right to shelter” would result in hundreds of people seeking shelter being turned away, forcing them to live in the streets just as the weather is cooling and winter is just a few weeks away.
They asked Hochul to oppose Adams’ plan, but on Wednesday attorney Gay, of the firm Selendy Gay Elsberg, wrote to Lebovits supporting the mayor’s request without caveat. Hochul hired the law firm after Attorney General Letitia James bowed out without explaining her reasons for doing so.
“The city entered into the consent decree over 40 years ago. The parties to the consent decree could not have contemplated that the city would experience the influx of so many migrants in such a short period of time,” Gay wrote. “Despite unprecedented resources deployed by the city and the state to assist the newly arrived migrants, the current situation is not sustainable.”
Asked about Hochul’s response to the mayor’s request to modify “right to shelter,” Adams’ spokesperson Jonah Allon referred to the mayor’s statements on Face the Nation Sunday in which Adams claimed he wasn’t asking for a suspension, “we want clarification. This is a humanitarian crisis that we are facing. This is not what the architects of Right to Shelter thought about when you were dealing with those New Yorkers who needed shelter. “
The Legal Aid Society late Wednesday responded in kind, sending a 9-page letter with multiple attachments to Judge Lebovits opposing any change to “right to shelter.”
“The City’s revised application, supported by the State, would decimate Right to Shelter, protections that have defined our city and served as a lifeline for New Yorkers in need,” said Adriene Holder, chief attorney of the Civil Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “Working with both Albany and City Hall, we’ve identified various resources to help the City meet this moment, but our leaders have failed to follow through on these solutions.”
The wholehearted support from the governor stands in contrast to an earlier request Adams made to her in August when he requested an executive order that would have essentially extended “right to shelter” across the state, a change he said was needed to prevent upstate communities from refusing to shelter busloads of migrants the city had sent their way.
The state’s lawyer, Gay rebuffed that request, writing that the state “has no legal authority to extend the city’s obligation to provide shelter under the consent decree to other counties and localities that are not signatories to the consent decree.”
This story was published by THE CITY on October 11, 2023.