Adams Admin Takes Second Shot at Suspending ‘Right to Shelter’ in New Court Filing

Adams Admin Takes Second Shot at Suspending ‘Right to Shelter’ in New Court Filing

HELP ran an intake center in East New York for single women entering the homeless shelter system, Oct. 3, 2023. Alex Krales/THE CITY

By Greg B. Smith and Gwynne Hogan | October 3, 2023

The revised plea from City Hall would suspend the decree under more tailored circumstances, but advocates say it still amounts to the end of “right to shelter” as we know it.

Mayor Eric Adams on Tuesday asked a court to temporarily suspend the city’s decades-old practice of offering shelter to any adult who asks, proposing that the protocol deserves an emergency pause while the city grapples with the still-ongoing wave of asylum seekers who have arrived in New York for more than a year.

In a letter to Manhattan State Supreme Court, Assistant Corporation Counsel Daniel Perez asserted that if the court grants the city’s request to suspend the 1980s court decree guaranteeing a right to shelter, “The City will simply have the same obligations as all other jurisdictions throughout New York State. And the City will have significantly more flexibility in its response to the present crisis.”

The city’s application outlines conditions under which the right to shelter would be suspended: Either the governor or the mayor would have to declare a state of emergency, and the average number of single adults in city shelters would have to be 50% greater than the daily average over the past two years.

The modification, if approved by a judge, would mark the first major change to a practice that’s been on the books since 1981 when the city agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society to provide shelter to any adult who requested it.

The so-called right to shelter codified in the case, Callahan v. Carey, has emerged as a flashpoint after thousands of migrants first began flooding the city’s shelter system in the spring of 2022, initially mostly from South and Central America and now from all over the world.

As of Tuesday, Mayor Adams said the total number of asylum seekers who’ve arrived in New York since the diaspora began has topped 122,000. The mayor has warned that the ongoing wave, which now amounts to about 3,000 new arrivals a week, will “destroy” the city if the federal government doesn’t intervene to stem the flow and arrange for a more equitable distribution of migrants around the nation.

Adams’ Department of Law argued that the right-to-shelter commitment agreed to 42 years ago is “outmoded and cumbersome” and “has unnecessarily deprived policy makers of much-needed flexibility” to confront a crisis that could not have been imagined in 1981.

Shortly after his Department of Law filed this request, Mayor Adams issued a statement emphasizing that the Callahan decree “was never intended to apply to the extraordinary circumstances our city faces today.”

Now estimating the projected cost for city taxpayers to address this crisis at $12 billion over three years, he asserted, “It is abundantly clear that the status quo cannot continue.” More conservative estimates from the city comptroller’s office put the amount closer to $5.3 billion.

The filing by Perez took a different approach from the administration’s previous approach.

Last year the Adams administration asked the court for a broad waiver to the right to shelter requirement to allow the city to determine whether it could provide shelter based on the resources it had at its disposal.

That motion reopened the decades-old case but was never resolved. Last week Adams announced he intended to file a new modification request, and the judge assigned to the case, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Erika Edwards, ordered him to do so by Tuesday. She then recused herself from the case, stating that she wanted to avoid potential conflict because “it may appear” that she has an unspecified “motive to favor one party over another.” A new judge has yet to be appointed to the case.

The Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless issued a joint statement calling the city’s move “the most significant and damaging attempt to retreat on its legal and moral obligation.” They warned if granted by a judge, the move would allow the city to “end the Right to Shelter as we know it.”

“The City would have the ability to declare an emergency, and effectively end the Right to Shelter for thousands of New Yorkers — including working poor individuals who rely on the shelter system and, alarmingly, individuals who rely on disability benefits,” they said. “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.”

In his statement accompanying the request, Mayor Adams stated the modification “is not seeking to terminate” the agreement reached under the Callahan consent decree.

‘Close the Borders’

The city’s latest request comes as the number of people staying in shelters continues to climb to historic heights. As of Sept. 24, a record 115,200 people were staying in city shelters including 61,400 migrants, spread out all across the five boroughs in 210 emergency shelters.

In recent months, city officials have ramped up steps to try to discourage people from staying in shelters, including reducing the amount of time adult migrants could stay down to 60 days, then down to just 30 days, before they have to return to the intake center to seek another cot.

Adams and his top staff have resorted to increasingly alarmist rhetoric to describe the situation. Adams has said repeatedly migrants were ”destroying” New York City and over the weekend, Chief Advisor Ingrid Lewis-Martin urged President Joe Biden to “close the borders.”

“Until you close the borders you need to come up with a full on decompression strategy where you can take all of our migrants and move them throughout our 50 states,” she said in an interview on Pix11. “The right to shelter was intended for our indigenous homeless population, so we argue that we should not have to shelter all of these immigrants.”

At a press conference Tuesday, Adams walked back her remarks.

“We believe the borders should remain open. That’s the official position of this city,” he said.

While the city has taken steps to attempt to dissuade adult migrants from staying in shelters, the vast majority of migrants in city care are in families with children. The latest tallies released to the City Council in August indicated that of nearly 60,000 migrants in city facilities, 44,148 were parents and children.

But thus far the city has refrained from issuing 60-day or 30-day notices to families with children, though officials have been mulling this as an option, THE CITY reported.

At Tuesday’s press briefing Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom said more than 400 people were waiting at the Roosevelt Hotel for a place to sleep and city officials said they expected more lines to form outside the migrant arrival center there in the coming days, as they had over the summer. Adams, who has announced plans to travel to Mexico, Ecuador and from Bogotá in Colombia to the Darién Gap to further dissuade migrants traveling to New York City, issued an ominous warning.

“New Yorkers are going to start to see visibly what being out of room means,” he said, refusing to provide specifics. “We are out of room. We’re getting ready to take a real shift in this whole crisis.”

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