City Hall and Legal Aid Society settle right to shelter case

The temporary settlement will allow the city to limit adults’ shelter stays to 30 days.

Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom, Chief of Staff Camille Joseph Varlack and Corporation Counsel Sylvia Hinds-Radix announce a new settlement in the right to shelter case at the New York State Supreme Court Building in Lower Manhattan.

Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom, Chief of Staff Camille Joseph Varlack and Corporation Counsel Sylvia Hinds-Radix announce a new settlement in the right to shelter case at the New York State Supreme Court Building in Lower Manhattan. Annie McDonough

New York City and the Legal Aid Society announced on Friday that they have reached a temporary settlement over the city’s right to shelter. The settlement will preserve the city’s general “right to shelter” mandate – which requires that the city provide shelter to any person experiencing homelessness who seeks it – while allowing the city to limit newly arrived adult asylum-seekers’ shelter stays to 30 days, and to 60 days for younger adults.

City Hall characterized the settlement as one that will provide additional flexibility to manage the shelter population, while the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless characterized it as preserving the underlying right to shelter.

“When the original Callahan settlement was reached, no one could have foreseen the migrant crisis New York City has faced for the past two years,” City Hall Chief Counsel Lisa Zornberg said in a statement, referring to the Callahan v. Carey consent decree that established a right to shelter for homeless men in 1981. “This new agreement reflects the reality we’re currently in and allows New York City to appropriately manage this crisis.”

Under the terms of the settlement, newly arrived adult asylum-seekers will receive an initial 30-day shelter placement if they have nowhere else to stay and no resources to obtain housing. Adult asylum seekers under the age of 23 will receive a 60-day initial shelter placement. The city will extend those stays on a case-by-case basis, but only if asylum-seekers can demonstrate they have “some sort of extenuating circumstance necessitating a short additional amount of time in shelter, or have received a reasonable accommodation due to a disability,” according to City Hall. 

“These are extraordinary circumstances, this is not business as usual. The status quo would not work in this situation,” Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom said during Friday’s press conference. 

A non-exhaustive list of extenuating circumstances detailed in the settlement includes an individual providing proof that they’ll have alternative housing within 30 days or are recovering from a serious medical procedure. 

Another key circumstance that can allow an extension to be granted is when it’s shown that there have been “significant efforts to resettle” made, according to the settlement. Examples of actions that may constitute a showing of “significant efforts” include searching for employment, applying for available resettlement programs and attending all appointments with a caseworker at the shelter, among others. 

Ultimately, determinations of whether new arrivals seeking an extension in shelter meet that threshold will be determined by the city. “Determinations of whether a Single Adult New Arrival had made significant efforts to resettle will be made in the City’s discretion and on an individualized basis based on a totality of the circumstances,” the settlement reads. How many people are denied extensions after their 30 or 60 days are up may depend on how aggressive the city is in making those determinations. 

“In each case, it's an examination of the totality of that person's circumstances,” Legal Aid staff attorney Josh Goldfein said during a press conference on Friday afternoon. “Have they shown that they are making genuine efforts to try to move on? And if they have done that, then that's an extenuating circumstance – it’s spelled out in the document.”

The city has already been enforcing shelter stay limits – 30 days for adult migrants and 60 days for families – and requiring them to reapply for shelter assignment if they have nowhere else to go after that time is up. But those policies have received intense backlash from advocates and lawmakers, who argue that they result in people waiting days for a new shelter assignment, violating the right to shelter.

The new settlement does not apply to families, and there are currently no plans to change how the city is implementing 60-day shelter limits for families, according to City Hall.

Christine Quinn, the chief executive officer of the housing nonprofit Win and a former City Council speaker, said in a statement that the settlement preserves the right to shelter. “Thanks to the tireless work of advocates, the City’s attempts to further gut the Right to Shelter have been halted and the settlement sends a clear message: the right to shelter is here to stay,” she said. 

New York Immigration Coalition President Murad Awawdeh said in a statement that while the settlement includes important protections, the allowance of shelter limits on single adults goes against the right to shelter. 

“The settlement includes some important provisions, including ending the use of waiting rooms as temporary shelters, which forced too many new arrivals to sleep on floors or in chairs while they waited for shelter placements – assurances our communities did not have until today,” he said. “Yet, challenges persist. By specifically identifying single asylum seeking adults to be removed from shelters after 30 or 60 days without any true path to affordable housing, the Adams Administration creates a discriminatory practice that is not only immoral and antithetical to the intent of the Right to Shelter, but also short-sighted.”

Mayor Eric Adams first proposed modifying the “right to shelter” consent decree in the fall of 2022. After building and contracting dozens of emergency centers to accommodate the influx of new arrivals, the mayor’s administration began implementing shelter limit stays. Since November, the mayor’s office has issued thousands of 30- and 60-day shelter notices to single adults and families, respectively. 

According to the Legal Aid Society, those notices, many of which expired in December and January, resulted in many asylum-seekers having to wait outside in the cold before receiving new shelter placements. Other asylum-seekers had to stay for weeks at a reticketing center, where they were forced to sleep on chairs and the floor, before receiving new shelter placements.

Since October, the city and state have been engaged in private mediation with the Legal Aid Society. The city initially filed to suspend in cases of emergency the decades-old consent decree that provided the foundation for the right to shelter in May 2023, citing the influx of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers and has argued that the mandate was not designed to apply to a humanitarian crisis. In an updated request last October, the city asked for the right to shelter for single adults to be suspended during emergencies.

While the state is a party to the original consent decree, and has worked closely with the city over the past year to negotiate a modification, it is not a party to Friday’s settlement. Mayor Adams has repeatedly called on both the state and the federal governments to provide the city with additional resources and support over the past two years. Williams-Isom emphasized the mayor’s appeals during Friday’s press conference, saying that “while the ultimate solution for this immigration issue lies with the federal government – and we all know that – this agreement represents the tireless efforts of everyone here to address one of the biggest crises that ever faced the city.”