Facing concerns among advocates for the homeless after an uptick in New York City’s homeless population, local officials offered conflicting responses on how the city intended to comply with its right-to-shelter law.
Following a tour of a new Manhattan intake center on Thursday, Mayor Eric Adams brushed off a question about New York City’s mandate that requires the city to offer shelter to people in need, instead punting it to his chief counsel, Brendan McGuire.
“We did not say that we're reassessing the right to shelter,” said McGuire. “What we said was that we're reassessing the city practices with respect to the right to shelter.”
The remarks offered few specifics on exactly what changes would be made around the legal requirement, which has been the foundation of the city’s shelter system for decades. On Wednesday, amid the recent busing of thousands of migrants from southern states to New York, Adams issued a statement saying he would “reassess” the way the city handles shelter requests.
Advocates and lawmakers immediately expressed alarm that the mayor would try to undo or weaken the more than 40-year-old court decision and its subsequent consent decree, which requires the city to provide a bed in a shelter to anyone who seeks it. Prior mayors, most recently Michael Bloomberg, have unsuccessfully sought to modify the consent decree.
On Thursday, following the mayor’s press conference, the Legal Aid Society issued a statement saying, “We are always willing to work with the city on ways to improve services for anyone in need of shelter, including asylum seekers, so long as any proposal complies with well-established court orders and New York state’s constitution, which require the city to provide homeless individuals and families placement in a safe and accessible shelter.”
New York City’s nightly shelter population has been steadily climbing in recent months, reaching more than 57,000 people in early September – roughly 10,000 more than the count in May, according to data compiled by City Limits. On Tuesday, the Department of Homeless Services reported 55,727 people in its daily shelter census count, almost 5,700 short of the high in January 2019 under the de Blasio administration.
Adams’ tour of the intake center came days after the Legal Aid Society reported that the city had failed to provide shelter to roughly 60 men, some of them migrants, forcing them to sleep in city offices.
“We're not stopping at the bare minimum of the right to shelter,” Adams said on Thursday. “We're going beyond that to make sure that they have the right to have a decent life here in our city.”
According to administration officials, the city has handled requests from over 11,000 asylum seekers since May and opened 23 emergency shelters.
After the press conference, McGuire argued that the city had leeway in how it met the requirements of the right-to-shelter law because it was a consent decree.
“Not every single detail is spelled out in terms of what that means in terms of the city's obligations and how best to meet those obligations,” he said.
McGuire added that timing had been a challenge for the city. Under the consent decree, the city must provide shelter to anyone who seeks assistance. A separate local law says that families with children that arrive at intake centers by 10 p.m. must receive shelter by that night. Single adults are also entitled to a bed that night, although there is no specific application time by which they must arrive to get a placement.
“This is an extraordinary unforeseen circumstance,” he said. “That's the point.”
On Thursday, Gov. Kathy Hochul, speaking to reporters in New York City, was asked about the Adams administration’s plan to “reassess” how the city implements the right-to-shelter law.
She described it as “very much a local decision” for the mayor and City Council to hash out.
Additional reporting by Jon Campbell. This story has been updated.
Correction: This story has been revised to correctly identify which types of individuals must receive shelter under a rule involving intake arrival time.