Since 1981 NYC has been required to provide temporary housing for every homeless person. Photo: Ev on Unsplash

After back-and-forth legal volleys from the Adams administration and the Legal Aid Society, a state court judge in the long-running case of Callahan v. Carey — the so-called right-to-shelter case, which resulted in a 1983 settlement establishing NYC’s rather unique responsibility to provide shelter for all single adults who need it — ordered the parties into mediation to determine how it might be modified. The administration has been attempting to be let out of the mandate as it has continued receiving tens of thousands of asylum seekers.

It’s also worth noting that Callahan v. Carey applies only to single adults, which the city itself has said now only make up a minority of the people in its care; as of August, over 70% were families with children. Similar but separate cases cover these families, and the city is probably intentionally avoiding the more delicate proposition of asking to turn children away, though a modification to Callahan could certainly open that door a little wider.

So far, the issue has largely been discussed practically as a binary: you have the right, or you don’t have the right. In its filings with the court, the city has taken that absolutist tack to push for a full-fledged suspension of the settlement as a response to the migrant situation. In their October 3 letter to the judge, for example, city lawyers wrote that “the Consent Judgment should be modified or temporarily suspended so as to not distinguish the City from New York State’s other 57 counties during the period of the present crisis,” essentially turning one of the advocates’ demands — that every county in the state uphold what is arguably a state constitutional right to shelter — on its head.

They reiterated that sentiment in an October 18 letter responding to the Legal Aid Society’s own filing, writing that the city “has ‘proposed a measured and appropriate modification’ of the Consent Judgment that would suspend, rather than terminate, the obligations imposed,” i.e. that the temporary but full suspension of the mandate is a sensible response. The city has also been exploring other avenues to clear shelters of migrants specifically, such as with 30-day and 60-day “reapplication” requirements (which are functionally shelter evictions) for adults and families, respectively.

The thing is, the settlement is not just a yes or no document. It lays out standards like specific space requirements and hours allotted to recreational activities, and the city could be seeking modifications to those rules without moving for a suspension in full. I’ve asked the mayor’s office multiple times why such an all-encompassing measure is necessary, and how it would be implemented in practice if they got it — would the city simply stop accepting the bulk of migrant shelter petitioners overnight? Who would still be permitted to receive shelter? Would only migrants be turned away, or also street homeless people who became homeless in New York?

In response, the mayor’s press staff has mostly fallen back on arguing that its current obligations are unsustainable and shying away from specifics (apart from emphasizing that it would be turning only migrants away, which itself poses some legal questions; having a city policy that only targets one group of people is dicey, and the city by design does not ask about immigration status). Presumably, the mediation that has now been ordered by the judge will force the city to iron out some of these details in negotiation with the plaintiffs, but it’s worth also asking why exactly a complete suspension is considered so crucial.

Part of the reason Legal Aid and other advocates strongly oppose even a temporary suspension is that neither this mayor nor his predecessors have been particularly shy about the longer-term objective of getting rid of Callahan completely. Michael Bloomberg tried to get the lawsuit dismissed altogether in 2006 and fought tooth and nail in court, unsuccessfully, to get the settlement terminated.

While New Yorkers might wonder why this almost unique obligation is a benefit, the answer is partly what we don’t really see in NYC: homeless encampments of the sort that characterize other cities. While folks often grumble about seeing unhoused people on the streets, we have a much lower rate of street homelessness than, say, San Francisco. Getting rid of the tool that made that happen will have serious long-term consequences. For now, we’re left to see what gets hashed out in the mediation.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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