The Adams administration is seeking a court’s permission to suspend a decades-old mandate that New York City provide room and board to anyone in need — a unique-in-the-nation obligation that has strained the shelter system during the current influx of tens of thousands of foreign migrants.
In a six-page filing made public Tuesday night, the administration argues that those who conceived the mandate decades ago, initially for homeless men sleeping on the Bowery and later expanded to women and children, never contemplated the current crisis.
The request to suspend the mandate would apply only to an adult without an accompanying child, Mayor Eric Adams’ chief counsel, Lisa Zornberg, said Wednesday at a news briefing at City Hall.
Typically, in recent months, 300 or 400 migrants arrived daily, Camille Joseph Varlack, Adams’ chief of staff, said Wednesday at the briefing. Lately, it’s 600 a day, she said. And the number of chartered buses arriving daily has almost tripled, she said. Ten chartered buses arrived the week of Sept. 11 — some sent under a program by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to protest the Biden administration's border policies — and 27 the week of Sept. 25.
WHAT TO KNOW
- New York City’s unique-in-the-nation right to homeless shelter would be curbed if a court grants a request by Mayor Eric Adams’ administration.
- Even if the city prevails, state rules still require all counties, including Nassau and Suffolk, to provide shelter to the needy, as long as the shelter-seeker isn’t in the nation illegally.
- The right to shelter dates back to a 1981 legal settlement in a case brought on behalf of an alcoholic who lived on Manhattan's notorious Bowery.
That week about 3,700 migrants arrived in the city — one of the biggest weeks since the crisis began last year — said Anne Williams-Isom, a deputy mayor overseeing the city's crisis.
More than 122,700 migrants from around the globe have come into the city, with over half being placed in city-funded hotels and shelters.
“The City requires immediate relief with respect to the most intractable aspect of the present crisis — the global perception that the Consent Judgment extends a blanket right to obtain City-provided shelter to the world at large," wrote a municipal attorney, assistant corporation counsel Daniel R. Perez.
Adams, who was traveling Wednesday to Latin America for a tour related to the crisis, has forecast that the migrant surge will cost New York City $12 billion by next fiscal year. Adams has ordered cuts to city agencies totaling as much as 15% by next year.
More than 200 shelters, intake centers and other sites have been opened to shelter, feed and otherwise care for migrants — on top of the traditional homeless population.
Perez wrote that the mandate, which in 1981 settled a lawsuit brought on behalf of the homeless, is "outmoded and cumbersome" and has "unnecessarily deprived policymakers of much needed flexibility.”
The letter proposes that the right-to-shelter be suspended in the city when the mayor or governor declare a state of emergency and, when for at least two weeks during or just before the declaration, “the daily number of single adults seeking shelter is at least 50% greater than the daily number of single adults seeking shelter before the declared state of emergency, averaged over the most recent two-year period.”
If a judge agrees to the modifications, the letter says, the city would still be on par with the obligations of the state's other 57 counties, which require that all 62 counties provide shelter to any qualifying person where a bed is sought, generally so long as the shelter-seeker is not an immigrant in the nation illegally.
In the spring, the Adams administration first began the process for the right-to-shelter suspension by petitioning a court to reopen the settlement, but no specifics were offered. Adams hasn’t been shy about his displeasure about the mandate.
“Right now, the way it currently states, you could come to New York from anywhere on the globe, you could come to New York City, and we are supposed to feed, clothe, house you as long as you want,” Adams said in August. “That is just not sustainable. It’s not realistic. And so because of that, you’re finding people come from all over the globe.”
It’s a change from as recently as last year, when Adams personally welcomed migrants to the city from buses at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The city now gives eviction notice to childless migrants, telling them they have to leave and go reapply after a month or two.
A joint statement by two advocacy groups involved in the case — Legal Aid and the Coalition for the Homeless — predicted that if the administration gets its way, “Street homelessness would balloon to a level unseen in our city since the Great Depression.”
“The City’s shameful revised application would go far beyond limiting its obligation to provide some form of emergency shelter to asylum-seekers and other new arrivals. If successful, 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,” the statement said.
The original lawsuit, dating to 1979, was a class-action case. The lead plaintiff was a man named Robert Callahan, a veteran of World War II and a short-order cook who found himself living as an alcoholic on the Bowery in Manhattan.
The lawyer who brought the case, Valley Stream native Robert Hayes, cited the state constitution’s Article 17, approved in 1938 during the Great Depression: “The aid, care and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state and by such of its subdivisions, and in such manner and by such means, as the legislature may from time to time determine.”
Hayes convinced State Supreme Court Justice Andrew Tyler, who ruled that the “destitute and homeless alcoholics, addicts, mentally impaired derelicts, flotsam and jetsam” were entitled to board and lodging, and the state and city are together responsible to pay for the “hapless and hopeless men.”
Callahan, who did not live to see the settlement, was found dead on Mulberry Street.