NYC Mayor Adams reaches settlement in fight to roll back right to shelter

New York City officials reached an agreement on Friday to modify the city’s unique right to shelter rules by capping stays for newly arrived migrant adults, following a monthslong court fight over measures meant to guarantee a bed to anyone in need.

The settlement with the nonprofit Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless — court-appointed monitors of the shelter system — establishes minimum requirements for homeless adult migrants seeking shelter, including a 30-day shelter stay, or 60 days for adults under 23; and access to bathrooms, food and other essentials.

The agreement also allows the city to deny shelter to adults who have exceeded those time limits and don’t take enough steps to find alternate housing or meet other exceptions.

The limits on stays do not apply to families with children and will remain in effect as long as the city is under its current state of emergency related to the rise in migrants who need services.

As tens of thousands of recently arrived migrants entered the city’s shelter system, Mayor Eric Adams attempted to condition shelter availability on capacity limits set by his administration. The Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless opposed that move in court last May.

“We never asked to get rid of the right to shelter,” Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom said at a press briefing announcing the settlement. “We never said that the right to shelter wasn’t important. What we said was that we needed some modification so that we could have some flexibility to be able to manage.”

The city’s right-to-shelter rules date back to a 1981 consent decree guaranteeing a bed for any adult experiencing homelessness. Later rulings extended this right to families with children and established minimum shelter conditions. No other city in the country has such rules, which are credited with reducing street homelessness.

Joshua Goldfein, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said the settlement preserves the right to shelter. “It ensures that we end the practice that we’ve seen over the last several weeks of people being forced to spend the night in chairs or outside waiting days and days, even a week for a bed,” he said.

Adams praised the agreement, saying it allows his administration to limit shelter stays for migrants without violating court orders. He said it gives the city “additional flexibility during times of crisis, like the national humanitarian crisis we are currently experiencing.”

But the compromise also lets the city deny adult migrants shelter after their initial 30 days lapse, unless they meet an “extenuating circumstance,” such as if they have a pending lease and need more time; have a disability or upcoming surgery; or can prove they’ve made efforts to exit shelter.

Those efforts can include applying for legal asylum, reaching out to family and friends for assistance, attending all case worker appointments and searching for employment, according to the settlement.

Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the New York-based Coalition for Homeless Youth, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said that although the settlement includes some “bright spots,” such as 60-day shelter stays for young migrants, it leaves too many barriers for people trying to access shelter.

“Giving those that are from another country and entered this city after some arbitrary date less than [others] is wrong, and perpetuates the deservingness politics that young people experiencing homelessness know all too well,” he said in a statement. “No one should have to prove that they deserve to sleep with a roof over their head or be forced to the streets indefinitely, but yet here we are.”

The agreement prohibits the city from forcing people to sleep on chairs and floors at five “waiting rooms” where adult migrants often languish for days in hope of securing a new shelter placement. The city must eliminate its current backlog of waiting migrants by April 8 and stop using the locations as de facto shelters. While migrants can still use the spaces as drop-in centers and may sleep there for a night, the city must provide them with three meals a day and access to showers.

Ultimately, attorneys in the matter said, the settlement should dissipate long lines of adult migrants waiting to reapply for shelter at a reticketing site in the East Village. Case management and extension requests should take place at migrant shelters, they said.

“Offices with chairs and floors are not shelters,” said attorney Steve Banks, who previously served for eight years as the city’s social services commissioner and has worked with the Legal Aid Society on the case.

Years ago, as a lawyer for the organization, Banks sued to extend the right to shelter to families with children. He said the current agreement is just a temporary solution.

“The right to shelter is a safety net which has stood the test of time,” he said. “This settlement, it will stand the test of the current crisis.”

Adams imposed 30-day shelter limits on adults and 60-day limits for families staying in shelters run by other city agencies last year. He said the city’s right-to-shelter rules weren’t intended to provide beds for tens of thousands of newly arrived migrants who have arrived since 2022.

Adams first asked a judge to reconsider the practice last May. In October, the city requested relief from providing shelter if the mayor declared a state of emergency or when the daily number of single adults seeking shelter increased by 50%.

Adams isn’t the first to try to change the rules. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani vowed to eliminate the shelter guarantee and ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked a judge to impose new rules forcing single adults to prove eligibility. Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city made it more difficult for families to enter the shelter system.

Nearly 90,000 New Yorkers, most of them families with children, spend the night in DHS shelters, according to city records.

Another roughly 34,000 people stayed in shelters intended to house newly arrived migrants in January, according to the most recently published city data.

Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Dave Giffen said he hoped the settlement “finally puts an end to Mayor Adams’ efforts to dismantle this lifesaving cornerstone of New York’s response to homelessness.”

“For more than 40 years, New York’s legal Right to Shelter has distinguished our city as a community that demands basic standards of decency and humanity for anyone in need,” he said.

This story was updated with additional information about the settlement, including quotes from city officials and lawyers.

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