NYC Mayor Eric Adams pushes courts to narrow right-to-shelter law amid surge in migrants

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Mayor Adams’ legal team have pushed the state Supreme Court on Tuesday to suspend New York City’s right-to-shelter law at times when the city “lacks the resources and capacity to maintain sufficient shelter sites, staffing and security” — a drastic move that comes in response to the city’s migrant crisis and which drew immediate criticism from the city’s liberal establishment.

The legal push, which was signed by Adams’ Assistant Corporation Counsel Jonathan Pines and addressed to Judge Deborah Kaplan, requests permission from the court to get “relief from and modification of” the 1981 consent decree that enshrined the right to shelter into law.

Pines and the mayor himself cited the migrant crisis — which has resulted in more than 65,000 asylum seekers flooding into the city since last spring — as central to the administration’s rationale for seeking to narrow the law.

“We are in no way seeking to end the right to shelter. Today’s action will allow us to get clarity from the court and preserve the right to shelter for the tens of thousands in our care — both previously unhoused individuals and asylum seekers,” Adams said in the written statement put out Tuesday evening. “Given that we’re unable to provide care for an unlimited number of people and are already overextended, it is in the best interest of everyone, including those seeking to come to the United States, to be upfront that New York City cannot single-handedly provide care to everyone crossing our border.

“Being dishonest about this will only result in our system collapsing, and we need our government partners to know the truth and do their share,” he added.

Adams’ announcement came just hours after the Daily News first revealed that his former chief of staff, Frank Carone, “welcomed” a legal challenge to the city’s handling of the right-to-shelter law in connection with the migrant crisis.

Like Adams, Carone told The News that revisiting the issue in court could establish “clarity” when it comes to the city’s obligation, and he suggested that such clarity would likely limit the scope of the law, which is viewed as sacrosanct by many progressives.

From Carone’s perspective, the intent of the consent decree would have to be significantly expanded if it were to remain in place in its current form, and he said advocates for that would have a difficult time making that case to a judge.

“Their argument would have to be absurd,” Carone said. “You would have to include anyone in the world coming into New York City seeking shelter. How could you say that with a straight face?”

The right-to-shelter law came into being not through legislation, but through what’s known as the Callahan consent decree, which stemmed from litigation during Mayor Ed Koch’s administration. 

Over the past year, the law and its application have been front and center as the city has struggled to manage the migrant situation, which Adams has repeatedly framed as a humanitarian crisis.

Debate over its recent application has also proven contentious.

The Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless, which are responsible for monitoring the city’s adherence to the law, threatened to sue the city if it broke the law when the Adams administration was poised to house migrants in tents at a Bronx parking lot. That came days after the city appeared to run afoul of right-to-shelter rules when it didn’t provide housing for people seeking shelter within the prescribed time frame.

Since then, Adams has suspended certain right-to-shelter provisions through an executive order, citing the migrant crisis as the reason.

But Tuesday’s move is more significant and, if advanced by the court, could alter the right-to-shelter law permanently by granting the city an exception based on a lack of resources, including “sites, staffing and security to provide safe and appropriate shelter.”

Exactly how the city would quantify that lack of resources was not immediately clear Tuesday evening, but Adams pointed to the migrant crisis as a primary illustration of such a lack being readily apparent.

“We now have more asylum seekers in our care than New Yorkers experiencing homelessness when we came into office,” Adams said. “When the original Callahan consent decree came down almost 40 years ago, no one could have contemplated, foresaw, or even remotely imagined a mass influx of individuals entering our system.”

Past mayors have attempted to narrow the law’s scope. Former Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg both failed.

In a joint statement Thursday evening, Legal Aid and the Coalition said they hope Adams’ latest legal push suffers the same fate.

“The administration’s request to suspend the long-established state constitutional right that protects our clients from the elements is not who we are as a city,” they said. “We will vigorously oppose any motion from this administration that seeks to undo these fundamental protections that have long defined our city.”

Last September, Adams signaled that his administration might be contemplating a change to the law when he said the city’s “prior practices” when it comes to housing the homeless “must be reassessed” — a remark some interpreted as an allusion to the right to shelter law. 

At the time, the administration clarified that it wasn’t reassessing the law itself, but “the city’s practices around the right to shelter.”

Since then, Adams has largely avoided discussing his thinking on the matter — until Tuesday.

Many homeless advocates are deeply concerned about changing the law, but others believe it’s overdue.

Robert Mascali, a former deputy commissioner at the city’s Department of Homeless Services, said it should remain on the books, but in a revised form.

“Let’s make it fit with what we have to deal with today,” he said. “When this was set up, it was about 40, 50 people a day coming into shelter. Now, it’s 400 people a day. This isn’t going to end tomorrow.”

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