The Right to Shelter
Twenty years ago -- on December 5, 1979 -- the State Supreme Court issued its first court
ruling in Callahan v. Carey, ordering the City and the State to provide emergency shelter in
New York City to homeless men. This court order resulted from a class action lawsuit filed by
Robert Callahan, a homeless man who like so many in the late 1970's slept on the streets of
New York and led to a 1981 consent decree that established the historic right to shelter.
This simple right to shelter has been the bedrock principle upon which New Yorkers have
provided compassionate support to men, women, and children who fall through the safety net
and find themselves homeless.
Now, as the new millennium approaches, Mayor Giuliani wants to turn back time with a New
Year's resolution to eject homeless New Yorkers from shelters and put them on the streets for
a minimum of thirty days if they fail to comply with workfare and other new requirements. The
children of ejected families will be taken into foster care, while their parents will be apparently
forced to sleep on city streets. Under the Mayor's plan, applications for shelter from homeless
people who have already been temporarily cut off the welfare rolls would be automatically
For twenty years, the legal right to shelter has provided vital emergency assistance for half a
million homeless men, women, and children in the neediest of situations.
Mayor Giuliani's Work for Shelter Proposal
Mayor Giuliani's proposal flies in the face of everything experienced homeless service providers
and advocates have learned about how to engage and help homeless people. We know that
in order to help men, women, and children who are homeless, we need to encourage them to
seek shelter and then work with them to get them back on their feet with supportive services
and housing assistance. Such an approach has helped hundreds of thousands regain their
footing and rejoin society as contributing citizens.
In contrast, the Mayor's compassionless proposal will lead to more homeless people sleeping
on New York City streets. It does not create one new job for a homeless person, despite the
false claim that it will lead to work. It will misuse the already overburdened foster care system
as a wedge to separate homeless children from their parents. It also will frighten many
vulnerable homeless people -- including victims of domestic violence and mentally ill individuals
-- and deter them from seeking shelter and vital services.
A growing citywide coalition of citizens and organizations strongly oppose Mayor Giuliani's
proposed policy. We believe that New York City should instead work to maintain and
strengthen a continuum of services -- including shelter, support services, and permanent
housing -- for homeless New Yorkers. New York City must preserve the right to shelter and
with it, the quality of life for all of us and the dignity of self for those less fortunate. Saving the
right to shelter will save countless lives: get involved today.
Joining the Campaign
There are a number of ways in which you get can involved. They are:
1.Endorse the Campaign to Save the Right to Shelter.
2.Sign-on to the letter being sent to Mayor Giuliani.
3.Call the Mayor and tell him to preserve the right toshelter! 212-788-3000
To join the campaign and learn other ways you can help save New York's proud 20 year history of guaranteeing the right to shelter, call the Coalition for the Homeless, 212-964-5900, ext. 184.
As the following story of Johnny illustrates, the attack on the right to shelter is a tremendous
threat for the most vulnerable New Yorkers. Johnny is a formerly homeless man in his forties
who lived on the streets off and on for several years. In 1998 he resided at the Bellevue Men's
Shelter, an enormous facility on Manhattan's East Side that provides shelter to elderly and
mentally ill homeless men. Last summer, Johnny was one of a dozen men who were evicted for
a week from the entire shelter system for violating a minor rule - smoking a cigarette in a
For seven days, Johnny and the other homeless men slept in parks, on subway trains, and, in
at least one case, in a hospital ward. The sanction was similar to the regulations proposed by
Governor Pataki, which require shelter officials to eject families and individuals from all
shelters for minor rules violations.
What makes Johnny's story particularly tragic, however, is that he is mentally retarded. Johnny
has an IQ of 56, and is yet another individual who has slipped through the cracks of the
fraying social safety net. Indeed, during Johnny's first several months at the shelter he was
mis-diagnosed as mentally ill, and was ordered to take Haldol, an anti-psychotic medication
with powerful side-effects. Johnny didn't understand the no-smoking rules, and yet City
officials threw him out onto the streets for a week. With all of the shelter doors closed to him,
he returned to the only place he knew - the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx where he used to
When There's No Right to Shelter
There is no right to shelter in the vast majority of American cities, and the results have been
devastating for homeless families and individuals nationwide. Shelters in most cities in the
United States are forced to turn away homeless men, women, and children because they are
full to capacity. Many have strict time limits on shelter stays - after a homeless family or
individual reaches the time limit, they must return to sleeping rough on the streets.
Recent annual surveys by the United States Conference of Mayors have found that
approximately 25 percent of homeless families in American cities are turned away when they
request shelter. In most American cities, homeless families may have to break up in order to
receive shelter, and shelters may be closed during the day. In some cities (such as Denver,
Minneapolis, and Nashville), unmet shelter requests by homeless families are as high as 50
percent. In San Francisco, where homelessness has risen dramatically in recent years,
hundreds of homeless families and individuals are on waiting lists for emergency shelter. When
they are turned away from shelters, homeless families are forced to sleep in automobiles, in
abandoned buildings, and on the streets.
In over 80 percent of surveyed cities, homeless adults are turned away to accommodate
families. In Cleveland, for instance, although there is a system of overflow shelters designed
for homeless men turned away from regular shelters, the overflow shelters are often full. In
Detroit, officials estimate that shelter capacity is only half of the nightly homeless population,
and as a result, many homeless adults are forced to turn to hospital emergency rooms,
abandoned buildings, and the streets. All in all, in recent years most major American cities
have reported steady increases in shelter demand and dramatic increases in homeless people
residing in public places.
The experience of Washington, D.C., demonstrates the high price paid for losing the right to
shelter. The legal right to shelter in the nation's capital was eliminated in 1990, and since then
the number of shelter beds citywide has fallen despite increases in homelessness. Indeed, last
year over 500 families were on a waiting list for emergency shelter.
In New York City, where the homeless population is much larger than in other American cities,
the risk of losing the right to shelter is incalculably high. Each night in 1999, 23,000 homeless
people reside in the New York City shelter system, including nearly 9,000 children. If even a
quarter of the shelter population were to lose their shelter placement, over 5,000 more New
Yorkers would be sleeping in parks and on the streets every night of the year.
Moreover, mass homelessness is on the rise in New York City. The number of homeless families
sleeping each night in municipal shelters has risen by 8 percent since 1998 alone, to nearly
5,000 families per night, despite the strict eligibility reviews mentioned above. After declining in
the early 1990s largely as a result of innovative housing programs, the single-adult homeless
shelter population has increased by nearly 800 people per night since 1994. Finally, homeless
outreach workers and community organizations report that the streetbound homeless
population, which declined so dramatically in the early 1990s, has also risen over the past two
Lasting Solutions to Homelessness
The attack on the right to shelter comes at a time when there is widespread consensus on
effective solutions to the crisis of mass homelessness. Moreover, these solutions cost less
than the municipal shelter system, and offer a proven alternative to the City's singular reliance
on warehouse-style shelters.
The Continuum of Care
Since the landmark 1992 report of the New York City Commission on
the Homeless, there has been widespread agreement in the human services community that
New York City must maintain and strengthen a "continuum of care" for our homeless
The bedrock of the continuum is the right to shelter - indeed, the Commission asserted that
"the emergency system must provide decent and humane shelter."
The "continuum of care" must also include an expansion of homelessness prevention efforts,
including eviction-prevention assistance for at-risk households.
The Commission also made housing a fundamental goal, emphasizing that "All levels of
government must be engaged in the expansion of permanent housing options."
For homeless individuals living with mental illness, supportive housing
has proven to be an enormously successful alternative to shelters and psychiatric hospitals.
The landmark 1990 New York/New York Agreement, a State-City partnership, created 5,000
units of housing with on-site support services for mentally ill, homeless New Yorkers.
Compared to the annual cost of $23,000 to shelter a homeless adult and $36,000 to shelter a
homeless family, supportive housing - which costs as little as $12,500 per year - offers
long-term savings to taxpayers.
Rental Assistance Program
For the thousands of homeless families and individuals who are
employed but don't earn enough to afford private-market housing, the Rental Assistance
Program (RAP) is a proven path to independent living. The Coalition for the Homeless has
operated a pilot Rental Assistance Program for over a decade.
RAP provides a modest rental subsidy for two years, enough to obtain permanent housing,
along with job development and support services that move families and individuals to
RAP costs as little as $6,500 per year, barely a fifth of the cost of the family shelter system.
Investments in Affordable Housing. Long-term solutions to the problem of modern mass
homelessness must include effective investments in affordable housing.
Unfortunately, over the past twenty years every level of government has cut back dramatically
on housing assistance for poor households. From 1976 to 1980, the Federal government
subsidized an average of 339,400 new units per year, whereas from 1990 to 1995 only 70,000
new units per year were subsidized.
In New York City, the Giuliani Administration has reduced capital spending on affordable
housing by 57 percent since the late 1980s, and has cut back on the creation of apartments
for homeless households by 73 percent.