The Right to New York City: Immigrant and Unhoused Communities Navigate a Shelter System Under Attack

December 18, 2023
By: Martha Guerrero
Dozens of migrants and community advocates staged a “sleep in” outside Gracie Mansion on November 16, 2023. Credit: Matthew McDermott/THE NEW YORK POST

            On October 3, 2023, New York City Mayor Eric Adams asked a state court to suspend a decades-old decree requiring the city to provide shelter and basic social services to anyone who requests them. “The city is not seeking to terminate the consent judgment; we seek only the immediate relief that present circumstances demand,” wrote the Democratic mayor to State Supreme Court Judge Erika Edwards in an emergency request, claiming that the ruling enacted over forty years ago had become “outmoded and cumbersome in the face of the present migrant crisis.”

On the one hand, Adams’ mention of the migrant crisis referred to the estimated arrival of 150,000 people from countries across South America, Central America, and the Caribbean to the city since the spring of 2022, as well as West Africa and to a lesser extent, the Middle East. The growing wave of West African migration to the U.S. from countries like Mexico and Brazil, as well as the longstanding arrivals of Haitian and other Afro-Caribbean populations, have revealed the heightened perils and discrimination of migrating while Black. According to immigration advocacy groups, Black and African migrants can face longer detention and higher bail amounts, which are discretionarily set by immigration judges. Some Black migrants have to pay as much as $35,000 to be released from detention, according to community organizations that have helped them financially. Many of these diverse migrants were initially bused to New York by border-state Republican leaders, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Arizona’s former governor, Doug Ducey. According to Abbott, Texas gave bus tickets to at least 42,000 migrants, including 15,800 sent directly to New York. Despite how much media attention the inflammatory rhetoric of figures like Ducey and Abbot has gotten – the latter mockingly saying that Mayor Adams should “walk the walk” by “welcoming illegal immigrants [….] with warm hospitality” – most new arrivals traveled to the Northeast on their own, some receiving tickets and transportation aid from community organizations and municipal authorities.

On the other hand, Adams’ complaints about an “outmoded” consent judgment referred to New York’s landmark “right to shelter,” which emerged from the 1979 Callahan v. Carey class action lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless on behalf of “all homeless men in New York City.” By late 1979,  the State Supreme Court established that the right to shelter could be found in the state constitution, and after nearly two years of negotiations between the plaintiffs and government defendants, the suit was settled as a consent decree in August 1981. The historic victory was propelled by Robert Callahan, an unhoused Korean War veteran battling chronic alcoholism who passed away the fall before the consent decree bearing his name was signed. While the right to shelter initially applied only to single men, it later expanded guarantees to women and families with children.

The city is currently housing an estimated 65,000 international migrants and asylum seekers as part of the 140,000 people recorded in city shelters in October, 2023. Data for this month represents the most current estimates available, which showed a 138% increase from January 2022, the materialization of what Adams and others have repeatedly called “the migrant crisis.”[1] Most of these foreign-born people presented themselves at a crossing on the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum, and even those who entered without authorization were likely released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection with a notice to appear before an immigration judge. Migrants are at various stages of the asylum-seeking or deportation processes, both of which can take several years. This fall, Democratic President Joe Biden granted temporary protection from deportation to people from Venezuela and Ukraine, enabling them to apply for work authorization but leaving them in a liminal status known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS). TPS is a discretional designation stemming from a 1990 law that empowers Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to grant eligibility for renewable work permits to those whose home countries are deemed “unsafe due to natural disasters or civil strife” as well as other “extraordinary and temporary conditions.”[2]

Mayorka’s piecemeal TPS, which is expected to grant work permits and temporary relief from deportation to nearly half a million Venezuelans who are already in the U.S., was part of a broader federal effort to accelerate work authorization for millions currently unable to sustain themselves due to restrictive asylum regulations that don’t even let them apply for a permit until 150 days after filing their application. This past September, 19 Democratic state attorneys general wrote to Mayorkas that work permits would “reduce the strain on government to provide social services,” and figures like Adams and Hochul have repeatedly urged the Biden administration to “let them [migrants] work.” Beyond the political stakes embedded in these discussions, calls for work authorization have taken special force in cities like New York and Chicago (which has registered an estimated 21,700 asylum-seekers and migrants since August 2022), as leaders reckon with the reality of thousands stuck in intricate legal limbos marked by an inability to work “legally” while waiting months for hearings and permits and facing mounting uncertainty and precarity.

Dismantling the Right to Shelter from the Inside

Even though Adams’ court petition to “suspend” the right to shelter remains unanswered, the city has launched an aggressive and likely illegal eviction and relocation campaign through several controversial measures, including recently imposed 30-day stay caps for single adults and 60-day ones for families with children. Migrants recently kicked out of shelters under these new rules, which advocates have qualified as de facto violations of the 1981 Callahan decree, have been forced to sleep on the floor for several days at city-designated “waiting areas,” or have been redirected to “reticketing centers” that only provide logistical and financial resources to those who agree to leave New York. As many face immediate eviction and newly manufactured hoops to reapply for shelter at another facility, thousands of migrants and others are being thrust into one of the world’s most expensive cities amidst an accelerating housing crisis.

A few days after Adams’ emergency request to Judge Edwards, New York Governor Kathy Hochul also embraced the possibility of dismantling the country’s most robust metropolitan shelter system. “I don’t know how the right to shelter […] can or should be interpreted to be an open invitation to 8 billion people who live on this planet, that if you show up in the streets of New York, that the city of New York has an obligation to provide you with a hotel room or shelter,” underscored the Democratic governor. On October 11, her office filed a court document backing up Adam’s motion, calling the request to nix the Callahan decree “measured and appropriate.” Hochul’s newfound support for Adams’ actions stood in sharp contrast to some of her previous responses, particularly her refusal to enact an executive order that would have expanded the right to shelter statewide.

On Aug. 27, 1981, the New York Times’ Robin Herman reported on the signing of the Callahan consent agreement by city and state officials. Courtesy of the Coalition for the Homeless.

Seeking to appease the hostility of several upstate suburban county governments to sheltering migrants and asylum seekers, the governor has strongly opposed arguments that the right-to-shelter mandate applies beyond New York City, even though New York state was an original defendant in the 1979 Callahan lawsuit and a state constitution article was the basis for the following consent decree.“ In 1981, the city of New York and the Coalition for the Homeless signed an agreement that the city would provide shelter to anyone who seeks it,” the governor said this past August, highlighting that the judgment didn’t apply “to the state’s other 57 counties.” Despite pledging over $1 billion to reimburse the city for shelter costs and deploying over 1,800 members of the New York National Guard to help run various centers, Hochul also repeatedly blamed Adams for mishandling the “migrant crisis,” leaving the mayor to fend for himself for over a year. On August 15, 2023, a lawyer representing the governor sent a 12-page letter to the Adams administration in response to a previous city request for state support, including covering two-thirds of the cost of sheltering the migrants “in the absence of meaningful federal funding” and implementing a statewide resettlement plan. The forceful rebuke (and denial of most requests) chastised city officials for not making “timely requests for regulatory changes,” not sharing “necessary information” with the state, not implementing programs “in a timely manner,” and not consulting the State “before taking certain actions.”

Amidst such previously pronounced fissures, critics saw the governor’s recent change of heart as part of a broader effort to dissolve the city’s shelter guarantees from the inside. The same day that Hochul’s office released its letter of support, Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless denounced the emerging state-city collaboration to “eviscerate” the longstanding social services system. In a joint statement, the two non-profits that shaped the right to shelter back in the early 1980s said that Adams’ state-backed proposal would not only impact “the vast majority of new arrivals, but also thousands of low-wage working poor New Yorkers, homeless individuals who receive federal disability payments, and long-time New Yorkers who lack immigration status.” Advocates also criticized the Hochul administration for offering resources “too little too late” and impeding the city’s ability to comply with the judgment before this newly instrumental alliance to erode the right to shelter from within.

While Adams and Hochul found common ground in challenging the legal foundations of the Callahan decree, state courts have continued to uphold its core shelter protections, which have been often depicted as gratuitous and onerous on taxpayers. Drawing from a longer tradition of judicial oversight that has upheld the right to shelter despite mounting challenges, Judge Edwards recused herself from the case brought forward by the Adams administration in early October to “avoid any potential appearance of impropriety” or have her impartiality “be questioned.” Her decision mirrored actions taken by New York’s Attorney General Letitia James earlier this fall, who declined to represent Hochul in the state’s position. While there have been moments in recent state history when attorneys general have refused to defend the state, such high-profile recusals continue to be rare. When asked about her recusal earlier this fall,  James said that she and Hochul had “a philosophical difference,” hinting at their widely diverging interpretations of right-to-shelter provisions. As noted by Politico journalists Emily Ngo, Nick Reisman, and Janaki Chadha, the governor has relentlessly argued that “the legal requirement to provide shelter […] only applies to New York City and not statewide,” which contrasts James’s views of housing “as a human right that applies across the state.”

Following Edwards and James’ respective recusals, on October 19, 2023, the city and state agreed to negotiate with Legal Aid Society and other housing advocates instead of advancing their court bid to roll back the right to shelter. However, if court-ordered mediation efforts ultimately fail, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Gerald Lebovits (Edward’s replacement) would have to deliberate on Adams’ emergency request, which continues to be strongly backed by New York state. “There should not be a war of legal papers,” said Lebovits on the mediation agreement. “For now, the solution is to try to settle the matter if possible and to solve whatever problem might exist. To that effect, we have agreed that the proper path forward is to discuss logistics and nuts and bolts confidentially.” In the middle of an embedded legal battle that promotes uncertainty, the city has continued to employ several bureaucratic pressure tactics to push migrants and others out of shelters, including stay caps, eviction notices, and the emptying of shelters due to fire code and other violations.

Out of the estimated 5,000 migrants who have run out their shelter time limits, fewer than 1,000 reapplied to stay in other facilities, and many have left New York after being redirected to makeshift “reticketing centers” and “waiting rooms” whose sole purpose is to deter and expel new temporary housing applicants. “We are moving people to reticketing to see if they want to be reticketed,” said Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom during a press conference on October 24, defending the use of plane and bus fare to pressure people into not exercising their right to shelter and leaving New York. While advocates and migrants have denounced these tactics as clear violations of the city’s temporary housing guarantees, Adams has continued to relativize and make light of such legal obligations. “There’s two schools of thought in the city right now,” said the mayor at the same press conference. “One school of thought states you can come from anywhere on the globe and come to New York and we are responsible, on taxpayers limited resources, to take care of you for as long as you want: Food, shelter, clothing, washing your sheets, everything, medical care, psychological care for as long as you want. And it’s on New York City taxpayer’s dime. And there’s another school of thought, that we disagree. That’s what you’re seeing playing out in the court right now. We just disagree.”

 Terms such as the “migrant crisis,” the “housing crisis,” and the “cost-of-living crisis” have emerged as shorthands that purportedly explain New York’s current reckoning with its landmark right to shelter as many coming from outside the city exercise it. Four decades after the enactment of the Callahan decree, the notion that those in need of refuge have the unqualified right to request it from the city seems in doubt, particularly for foreign-born residents. The people often described generically as “migrants” and “asylum seekers” have come largely from Latin American and Caribbean countries such as Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Ecuador, as well as from Mauritania, Sudan, South Sudan, Senegal, Burundi, Chad, Cameroon, and other African nations.

As Democratic leaders like Hochul and Adams continue to decry the strain of the “migrant crisis” on an overextended shelter system and deploy racialized stereotypes of resource-draining, passive immigrants, it’s important to consider the longer history of New York’s foreign-born and undocumented residents. The tens of thousands of migrants who haven’t entered the shelter system complicate all-encompassing narratives of crisis and dependence, as many who tapped into preexisting family and ethnic networks are now part of informal labor markets and neighborhoods. The history of migrant labor in New York City has both been shaped by and transcended issues of work authorization, as people from Latin America, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world have long powered sectors such as construction, light manufacturing, food services, delivery, corporate and domestic cleaning, childcare, elderly care, and hospitality.

The city’s affordable housing and cost-of-living crises are also worth deconstructing, particularly as poverty, income inequality, and homelessness continue to be depicted as individual and exceptional failures, rather than structural and widespread issues that reach more people every year.  As New York bounced back from the Covid-19 pandemic, an affordable housing shortage decades in the making became exacerbated, with rents hitting new records every month. In a city where half of working-age households can’t afford to cover basic needs and over one-third of residents spends more than 50 percent of their income on rent, ahistorical crisis frameworks obscure more than what they reveal. Looking at the broader trajectory of New York’s cost-prohibitive, deeply unequal housing infrastructure, the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers emerges as only part of a much bigger story of urban displacement and gentrification that has disproportionately affected Black, Brown, and other ethnic and immigrant urban communities over time.

A Story of Government Rollbacks & Privatization

The October request was not Adams’ first attempt to narrow and debilitate the Callahan decree. Back in May 2023, the mayor issued an executive order loosening several right-to-shelter minimum standards. As noted by housing advocates, the order targeted three main sections of the 1981 consent judgment. First, it suspended a rule protecting families with children from being housed in congregate settings, including barracks-style shelters. Established in 1991, the now dismantled regulation required families to be placed in private rooms with bathrooms, refrigerators, and cooking facilities. Second, it suspended the city mandate to provide temporary overnight shelter to families with children who arrive at an intake office by 10 p.m. Lastly, the order slackened legal protections for shelter residents, enabling the immediate eviction and/or relocation of anyone who has been living in a city dwelling for over 30 days without having to go through a housing court procedure.

Joshua Goldfein, a staff lawyer for the Legal Aid Society and vocal critic of Adams’ executive order, said in an interview with the New York Times that the last of the three modifications was particularly harmful. According to the shelter lawyer and activist, the erosion of housing court protections essentially amounted to a new self-ascribed prerogative “to turn off their key cards and lock them out,” which the city in fact did at the beginning of the year to families sheltered in a Lower Manhattan hotel after being displaced by Hurricane Ida in 2021. New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams was also among the most vocal critics of the mayor for not giving local lawmakers any warning about the executive order, saying it represented yet another unitary executive action to dismantle the shelter system from within. “It not only raises serious transparency issues, but it is not an example of how to effectively confront a challenge of this magnitude facing our great city,” Adams said at a City Hall press conference.

Two weeks after the spring executive order, the mayor doubled down, arguing that the right to shelter was essentially impossible to fulfill given the demands that migrants and asylum seekers added to an already strained system. His office filed an emergency request to Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Deborah Kaplan, asking for a change in the mandate that would enable city officials to suspend the right to shelter whenever they determined “a lack of necessary resources.” Through this petition, the mayor essentially sought to create an escape hatch to bypass the Callahan mandate whenever City Hall determined that there were no more “resources and capacity” to provide enough shelter sites. As it became clear that such a broad modification would enable local authorities to skirt their legal obligation to provide refuge, activists and Democratic leaders mobilized against Adams’ controversial request. “The administration’s troubling application, which appears to pursue an elimination of more than 40 years of legal protections for our city’s most vulnerable, leaves in question whether New Yorkers will be left to sleep on our streets, parks, roadway shoulder exits, and subways,” said Council Speaker Adams in a joint statement with fellow Democratic council member Diana Ayala, calling the mayor’s efforts to unitarily roll back shelter guarantees “beyond disturbing.” In turn, many Republicans and conservative Democrats supported the move. “Are we supposed to just pay for these […] people in perpetuity?” asked Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli in a spring statement to Politico. “Should we drum up another couple of billion every year or so for the rest of our lives? When does it end? Are New York’s taxpayers and businesses just supposed to accept paying for the world’s refugee camp?” concluded the Republican council member.

Before October of this year, Hochul hadn’t attacked the city’s right to shelter as directly. However, her efforts to prevent the expansion of the Callahan decree statewide over the past year and a half have been as intense as Adams’ campaign to dismantle the shelter system at the local level. As city officials opened new ad-hoc facilities in empty office buildings, gyms, vacant schools, church basements, and tents, housing advocates and local representatives urged the governor to enact a “statewide decompression” strategy to house new arrivals beyond New York’s five boroughs. In a letter submitted to Judge Edwards on August 22, Daniel Perez, an attorney for the city’s Law Department, argued that Hochul should issue an executive order that would compel other jurisdictions to house migrants and open up new shelters upstate. “The rapid influx of new arrivals is a statewide issue that requires a statewide response,” Perez wrote. Hochul repeatedly shut down that request, assuring upstate county leaders and conservative electorates that large-scale shelters wouldn’t open in their towns. “We cannot and will not force other parts of our state to shelter migrants,” she said earlier in the fall of 2023. “Nor are we going to be asking these migrants to move to other parts of the state against their will.”

Despite Hochul’s protective rhetoric of county governments, the Adams administration went ahead and began sending migrants upstate over the summer of 2023. In response, dozens of upstate and suburban counties issued local emergency orders banning hotels, motels, and other businesses from contracting to take asylum seekers. Even though advocates and city officials repeatedly asked the governor to “invalidate executive orders in counties that have refused to accept new arrivals” and “reach out to mayors and county executives throughout the state to encourage them to receive new arrivals,” Hochul ultimately upheld localities’ rights to decide whether to house migrants or not. She later said that while some upstate officials had “valid concerns about communication of the city’s busing program,” she was disappointed “to know that there are places in our state where they’re not as welcoming,” leaving her disapproval at the level of indirect rhetoric and refusing to supersede the executive county orders.

Hochul’s rejection of a potential ad-hoc statewide shelter system also emerged in response to several local protests fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment and public spending concerns. Besides the 30 New York counties that issued emergency declarations and executive orders barring the sheltering of migrants, four counties have also filed lawsuits against the city, and several municipalities have sued recently contracted hotels and motels. With new shelter locations becoming a political “hot potato” and a lightning rod within and beyond New York City, it came as no surprise that over half of the state’s 62 counties have tried to shut their doors to migrants and asylum seekers. In a spring 2023 lawsuit against over 30 municipalities, lawyers representing the city accused local leaders of  “wall[ing] off their borders” through emergency orders, as well as “bullying” hotels and other facilities with court challenges, executive orders, withheld permits, and selectively enforced zoning laws. While the Adams administration tried to overturn these local efforts to keep migrants out,  a series of procedural roadblocks and technicalities resulted in the city dropping about half of its cases earlier this September.

Adams’ fraught move to shuffle migrants out of the city faced a different kind of resistance and scrutiny when DocGo, the medical services company tapped to manage those upstate shelter sites through a $432 million no-bid emergency contract, was accused of deceiving and threatening migrants, hiring unlicensed security guards, and overcharging taxpayers. While city officials refused to release the DocGo contract with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the New York Times obtained contract details in the summer of 2023 that quickly raised alarms, including a $170 fixed rate for each room/night that enabled (and likely encouraged) DocGo to reduce boarding costs and pack in the difference. Reporters also unearthed accusations about the company’s use of fraudulent work and residency documents, security guards’ negligence, and several other complaints from those sheltered under DocGo’s care. By the fall of 2023, Attorney General James opened an investigation looking into allegations that the company made “explicit or implicit threats” to migrants, provided them with inaccurate information about employment opportunities, enrolled them “in a healthcare plan for which they are not eligible,” restricted their movement and “ability to speak or interact with others.” and took “other actions that may jeopardize migrants’ ability to obtain asylum.” Shortly after, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander refused to approve the DocGo contract  — the first time he had done so with an emergency contract — citing serious concerns about “the integrity and responsibility of this vendor and their subcontractors.” After months of warning Adams not to continue the city’s partnership with the controversial company despite his veto, on December 4, 2023, Lander officially revoked the mayor’s blanket ability to preemptively approve city contracts to shelter migrants, narrowing his customary “emergency powers.” In a letter sent to all city agencies, the comptroller revealed that he “hereby revoked” Adam’s prior approval of emergency shelter/services contracts awarded after November 30, 2023, and that future migrant spending would “require an independent prior approval from the comptroller’s office.” Upon reigning in Adams’ wide faculties to approve emergency contracts, Lander released a detailed report criticizing what he called a “lack of tracking and reporting” of contractors and subcontractors as city agencies doled out over $1.4  billion in fast-tracked contracts for migrant services from January 2022 through September 2023, over 60% of the $2.2 billion for Department of Homeless Services (DHS).

While Adams’ very public legal battles with county governments to bus migrants upstate might suggest otherwise, most foreign-born shelter residents have remained concentrated in a few city facilities, which have been subject to probes because of the multi-million emergency contracts issued to run them. Local data showed that by the end of October 2023, over a third of 65,000 estimated sheltered migrants were staying across two dozen ad-hoc Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers (HERRCs), which are among the overall 210 new city facilities used to accommodate this multiethnic population besides established shelters. Much like the city’s suspect dealings with DocGo for upstate shelters, the HERRC city infrastructure – which includes tent facilities on Randall’s Island, the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, and Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, as well as converted office space and hotels – has faced mounting questions about surreptitious contracts and transparency concerns, particularly regarding the Adams administration’s full discretion over pricing, contracts, and reimbursements. City officials in charge of running city HERRCs have been scrutinized over the $592 million spent on migrant services from July 2023 through October 2023, including $325 million in contracts for private security. Since HERRCs have been run by New York’s Health + Hospitals (H+H) public benefit corporation rather than city agencies such as the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) or the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), details on the 38 H+H migrant service contracts amounting to $2.1 billion haven’t been made public, as they technically fall outside of Comptroller Lander’s municipal oversight. This has led to what critics have called a “shadow shelter system” marked by unprecedented secrecy and no real accountability to taxpayers and city supervisors, resulting in dubious private multi-million contracts with checkered vendors such as Medrite LLC, an urgent healthcare company with no prior experience staffing or running shelters, or Aron Security, which was recently sued over multiple assaults targeting migrants that happened on the company’s watch. While the recent revoking of Adams’ emergency powers to unilaterally enter migrant spending contracts with private companies affects all agencies directly under the mayor, the public-private status of H+H shields the $2.1 billion in contracts from these oversight measures.

In light of the DocGo and H+H scandals, critics have put Adams’ proclaimed “spending crisis” into perspective, questioning the veracity of austerity discourses as the city continues to conceal and misrepresent its for-profit deals with private contractors. After Adams recently announced “extremely painful” budget cuts due to the “exorbitant cost” of sheltering migrants, local officials denounced the administration’s spending of billions in obscure emergency contracts with private companies plagued by complaints and lawsuits over their management and financial practices. In a joint statement, City Council Finance Chair Justin Brannan and Speaker Adams criticized the mayor for blaming rising “migrant costs” – which they emphasized have been largely determined by “expensive emergency contracts with for-profit companies” that have pushed out non-profit organizations with “more expertise and commitment” –  for his slashing of essential city services, including preschool education, trash pickup, library operations, and police staffing. “The administration’s approach of reducing budgets of all agencies broadly through additional cuts and a hiring freeze, along with inflicting cuts on our libraries, CUNY, and cultural institutions, is too blunt and not the prudent or sole choice,” they wrote.

In an era of imposed fiscal austerity, political whack-a-mole, and undisclosed billion-dollar contracts in the name of public migrant spending, discrete channels of state-city cooperation have also gained traction as the Adams and Hochul administrations try to jointly roll back basic protections and deter thousands by making the shelter system less welcoming and harder to navigate. For example, right around the same time that public battles about upstate relocation were taking place, New York’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) quietly agreed to waive certain state requirements at city shelters, including the duty to provide transportation between shelters and intake sites, access to a telephone, and clean linens, towels, soap, and toilet paper. Emergency waivers also targeted standards that were already lacking at certain facilities, including storage lockers for preventative medications, three feet of space between beds, and a 30-bed cap per sleeping area.

Shelter and housing advocates have denounced the state’s increased backing of city efforts to gut shelter protections, which by late November amounted to hundreds of evicted migrants in line for hours in 20- and 30-degree temperatures, despite an official Code Blue weather emergency. After being expelled from shelters because of the new stay caps imposed by Mayor Adams, many migrants were sent to waiting rooms in the Bronx, where they had to sleep on the floor before returning to an East Village reticketing site to obtain another shelter placement, some lining up as early as 4 am to maximize their chances of resettlement. According to internal data obtained by the local news site THE CITY,  as temperatures dipped into the 30s on November 28, 2023, less than 40% of the 640 migrants in line were assigned a new shelter placement, while the rest were turned away. Calling these bureaucratized austerity measures “an egregious breach” of the city’s legal obligation to provide shelter to anyone in need, Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless warned that “if the city, supported by the state, prevails in their effort to gut right to shelter protections, these scenes will become commonplace throughout our city.”

In the last year and a half, the city has continued to ask for more state and federal funds to house tens of thousands of migrants, while also calling on upstate municipalities to take on more responsibility for housing new arrivals. In turn, Hochul and local leaders across the state have resisted playing a larger role in what they have deemed a “city crisis,” citing the autonomy of upstate counties formally unbounded by the Callahan decree. Since the early 1980s, the history of the right to shelter has been marked by city-level battles to modify and weaken New York’s exceptional protocols, largely leaving state and municipal officials out of these debates. However, the unprecedented increase in the overall shelter population, as well as the anti-immigrant rhetoric binding city, state, and local leaders against foreign-born shelter applicants, has resulted in an uneven, yet pivotal city-state alliance to dismantle the Callahan decree. The most evident and recent embodiment of this emerging cooperation was Hochul’s strong support of the city’s emergency court request to suspend the right to shelter once and for all. More so, Adams’ insistent rhetoric of austerity and budget crises has largely eclipsed the broader context of undisclosed profits, unchecked local power, and unlawful government rollbacks behind the highly sensationalized “migrant crisis.” As migrants and asylum seekers continue to be depicted as resource-draining, passive, and dependent – as well as the biggest and only source of the city’s “shelter/housing crisis” – the Adams administration’s discretional multi-billion contracts awarded to private companies with little to no oversight reveal a more complicated picture. While anti-immigrant sensibilities have been largely expressed as economic grievances by many who consider shelters to be an unfair “hand-out” for foreign-born New York arrivals, it’s important to remember that the city’s increasingly privatized and stratified social services infrastructure currently allows someone like Adams to capitalize on discourses of financial responsibility while striking profitable contracts with private vendors in the name of “public” social service spending. Advocates and critics have pointed out that rather than blaming migrants, taxpayers might benefit more from questioning the administration’s spending of billions in undisclosed contracts to solve a “migrant crisis” that, according to Adams, keeps getting worse no matter how much money you throw at it.

Mayoral Reform, Judicial Oversight, and Community Resistance

Besides state counties’ barring of new facilities and arriving migrants, New York City’s latest efforts to nullify the landmark Callahan shelter provisions are part of a longer tradition of City Hall rollbacks, often tempered by judicial oversight and community resistance. Adams is not the first mayor who has tried to modify the right to shelter. In the past four decades, multiple mayoral administrations have challenged the shelter mandate through different political strategies, while the courts have consistently mobilized to preserve its core provisions and communities have protested attacks against its protections.

The latest example of such community resistance happened just a few weeks ago, when around 60 migrants and local advocates held a “sleep-in” protest outside Gracie Mansion, the official residence of Mayor Adams, to rebuke the administration’s 30- and 60-day limits on shelter stays for migrants. Community protestors laid on top of sleeping bags and set up tents and tarps in nearby Carl Schurz Park to symbolize the rise in street homelessness that shelter evictions have already brought about. According to City Hall figures, by the end of October, 2023, about 8,480 migrants had already received eviction notices, effectively pushing them out to a system increasingly unwilling to reassign them to a second facility. “The shelter limits and threats to the city’s right to shelter imposed by this administration are appalling, illegal, and go against our city’s legacy of helping those in need and welcoming immigrants from all walks of life,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, one of the organizations that led the rally, along with the group African Communities Together.

Dozens of migrants and community advocates staged a “sleep in” outside Gracie Mansion on November 16, 2023. Credit: Matthew McDermott/ THE NEW YORK POST

In turn, the latest example of judicial oversight amidst stark mayoral rollbacks came through Judge Edward’s recusal from Mayor Adams’ emergency request to suspend the Callahan decree, as well as Attorney General James’ public refusal to represent the Hochul administration’s position in the case. While neither Edwards nor James were explicit in their hesitancy and even opposition, their decisions not to engage with Adams’ case contributed to a loss in political momentum, which ultimately led state and city lawyers to accept entering closed-door mediation with shelter advocates. However, the latter have grown increasingly weary of the case’s new assigned judge, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Gerald Lebovits, whose controversial track record ruling on housing rights threatens a longstanding tradition of courts’ defenses of the right to shelter. Back in 2005, Lebovits upheld the eviction of Michael Tsitsires, a mentally ill man who kept most of his belongings in a rent-stabilized single-room unit in Midtown while primarily living on the streets within 10 blocks of the apartment building, which he considered a “safe area.” According to Lebovits’ interpretation, which was reversed a year later and subsequently reinstated by an appeals panel in 2008, Tsitsires had forfeited his right to stabilized housing because of his “homeless lifestyle […] likely caused by substance abuse,” a claim originally raised by TOA Construction Co. as it sued to evict the man. “The court is not condemning the respondent to a life of homelessness. Whether by choice or circumstance, the respondent is already homeless,” the then civil court judge wrote in his decision after a six-day non-jury trial. While Lebovits has been acting as mediator for the current private negotiations between city/state officials and housing advocates, he will be responsible for ruling for or against the city’s request to halt the Callahan decree if this process doesn’t succeed, an alarming prospect for those familiar with TOA Construction Co. v. Tsitsires.

Along with these broader traditions of community resistance and judicial oversight, several New York City mayors have tried to modify, narrow, and weaken the right to shelter, from Democrat Edward Koch (1978-1989) to Adams’ predecessor, Democrat Bill de Blasio (2014-2021). In turn, community organizers have often fought back and the courts have upheld the Callahan decree, solidifying and even expanding key protections for unhoused people amidst waves of mayoral reform and executive action. As noted by political scientist Thomas J. Main, by the end of the Koch administration in the 1990s, homelessness policy had been consolidated by being extended beyond individuals to families, a “consolidation […] achieved mostly through the efforts of advocates for the homeless in the courts.”[3] However, when looking at the uneven, multi-decade evolution of the right to shelter, even liberal figures like Koch become more complicated as they tried to “reassess” the decree’s coverage and qualitative standards.

Mayoral reform not only happened across party lines but involved multiple scales of the Callahan decree. Administrations often sought to relativize, circumvent, and minimize their legal obligations to the unhoused, pursuing a variety of channels and strategies. For example, on October 8, 1982, Koch filed a seemingly small request to the State Supreme Court to better comply with the Callahan decree. The administration sought to drop plumbing and dining minimum guarantees, which among other things, established that every facility should have “one toilet and one lavatory for each six residents,”  as well as “one tub or shower for each ten residents,” and “space for dining and leisure activities.” The responses from housing activists and the courts marked the beginning of an era of community protest, media battles, and judicial oversight. Essentially, Koch was after broader, vaguer language that enabled the city to discretionarily provide fixtures “adequate” for all men to shower once a day and to otherwise “meet client needs.” The city also requested that the requirement to provide dining and leisure activities at “every facility” be construed to allow men to be fed at the large-capacity sites and then bused to other shelters for sleeping. Without citing a source, the New York Times reported that such modifications would save the city “at least $1 million on toilets and cooking facilities.” Koch’s lawyers argued that besides excessive spending, there simply weren’t enough facilities that complied with such “unrealistic and unnecessary provisions,” a claim that was swiftly rebuked by  Robert Hayes, the co-founder of the Coalition for the Homeless and the lawyer who filed the Callahan v. Carey class action lawsuit. Hayes responded that rather than plumbing ratios in themselves, the issue at stake was the quality of life in the shelters. “For the city to come in on the eve of winter and say, ‘we don’t want to obey the consent decree’ is not only shameless but heartless,” said Hayes in an interview with the New York Times. According to the housing activist, this was “a way of keeping shelters so dangerous, dehumanizing and degrading” that people would be compelled to “stay on the streets.” While journalists and pundits largely sided with the city, calling the request to provide fewer lavatories, showers, kitchens, and diners “sensible and economically prudent,” the court didn’t. On November 4, 1982,  State Supreme Court Judge Richard Wallach found the city’s proposal of transporting men to various facilities for basic services inconsistent with “the basic structure and fundamental objectives of the decree.” Additionally, Wallach noted that since the State Department of Social Services regulations for adult homes had changed from one toilet/lavatory for every six residents and one shower/tub for every ten to one toilet/lavatory for every ten residents and one shower/tub for every fifteen, the Callahan decree should be amended to reflect these new ratios. Needless to say, the Koch administration didn’t agree with Wallach’s interpretation, claiming that “experience indicates that rigid formulas in this area cannot present predictably achievable goals, and could serve to needlessly restrict occupancy or proper use of suitable buildings.[4]

While a relatively small anecdote, this Koch vignette at the earliest stages of the shelter system offers a telling example of the layered battles between mayoral administrations, community activists, and courts, whose back-and-forth largely shaped the advancements and encroachments of an emerging system that mayors consistently tried to reshape and customize to their own political needs and objectives. Hayes sardonically pointed to this cross-party, decades-old reticence to the shelter system’s originally expansive protections, noting that even when Callahan was first enacted in the early 1980s, “it’s fair to say that nobody in the city government had any interest in expanding services for homeless people.”

Despite Koch’s maneuvers to relax the decree’s qualitative standards, the mayor who signed the consent judgment played a key role in laying the groundwork for a robust municipal shelter system, which by early 1983, already operated 13 independent shelters. “If a person ought to be in a shelter and has not been reached, that is a failure,” Koch famously said in 1985. Hoping to “break the cycle of homelessness,” Koch also devised a 1986 program known as Housing New York, which included a 10-year, $5.2 billion capital investment plan to build or rehabilitate over 150,000 units of affordable housing, with 15,000 exclusively targeting the unhoused population. However, despite Koch’s uplifting rhetoric and big plans, the 1980s also saw a dramatic rise in New York City’s unhoused population, as well as the emergence of family homelessness as a significant part of the modern housing crisis. By the late 1980s, two-thirds of shelter and welfare hotel residents on an average night were children and their families. Koch’s successor, fellow Democrat David Dinkins (1989-1993) continued the Housing New York initiative, which in its first few years resulted in an average of 3,700 subsidized apartments produced annually for previously unhoused people. Since Dinkins first ran for mayor in the late 1980s, he had proposed an ambitious expansion of permanent supportive housing, arguing that homelessness was “basically a housing problem.[5]” This led to the New York/New York Agreement, a joint state-city initiative signed in 1990 by Mayor Dinkins and Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo (1983-1994) that amounted to 3,800 units of permanent supportive housing. Known as “the largest effort ever launched to create housing with on-site support services for homeless individuals living with mental illness,” the New York/New York Agreement contributed to a 29% decline in sheltered families from 1988 to1990 and a 37% decrease in single adults from 1989 to 1994.

However, despite Dinkins’ big promises and significant achievements at the beginning of his tenure, things quickly took a turn, particularly as the 1990s economic recession led to a rebound in family homelessness. The mayor began to leverage the perceived drop in individual adult homelessness to narrow and strip the rights of families in search of shelter. Right around the time that Dinkins centralized shelter policies by establishing the Department of Homeless Services as a separate city agency in 1993, State Supreme Court Judge Helen E. Freedman fined the city and  held four of the highest-ranking officials in the Dinkins administration in contempt for what she denounced as “massive and repeated noncompliance” and a “failure to shelter homeless families adequately.” Besides mandating compensation for the families that were forced to stay several nights in processing offices in 1992, Freedman ordered the four city officials to “spend a night in the same offices where hundreds of homeless families have had to sleep” due to shelter delays, giving them 30 days to avoid the personal penalty if they presented “proof that they have stopped leaving the families to sleep on tabletops and dirty floors.” About nine months after the ruling, the Dinkins administration doubled down, significantly tightening access to shelters for families based on discretional definitions of homelessness and revealing just how much the mayor’s views on housing had changed since his election in 1989. “City officials said they were convinced, largely from anecdotal evidence, that a significant minority of families who request shelter actually have places to live, but declare themselves homeless so they can use the shelter system to gain access to scarce, subsidized apartments,” wrote Celia W. Dugger for the New York Times in early August, 1993. Recommended by the then chair of the New York City Homeless Commission, Andrew Cuomo, the city’s overhaul of the shelter system sought to up the burden of proof on unhoused families to weed out “fraudulent applications,”  a controversial rationale that Legal Aid Society activists compared to “hitting a flea with a sledgehammer” and an opportunity for discrimination. 

While often depicted as the liberal heyday of shelter guarantees to be disrupted by Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani (1994-2001), the Koch and Dinkins era was marked by significant, yet uneven affordable housing reform; continued efforts to weaken the city’s unqualified obligation to provide shelter; and ample instances of judicial oversight and communal pressure that clashed with the Democratic mayors’ visions of a charitable, but ultimately discretional and substandard shelter system. Through class action litigation and direct action, Coalition for the Homeless, Legal Aid, and other advocates pushed for the downsizing of massive armory shelters, the creation of smaller facilities with specialized services, and the phasing out of welfare hotels and barracks-style shelters for unhoused families and young children. As many of these legacies have been threatened and erased by the Adams administration, this history becomes all the more important. Mainly because it makes evident that rather than self-directed liberal champions of the unhoused, both Koch and Dinkins expanded the shelter infrastructure and institutionalized minimum qualitative standards because of sustained pressure from courts, activists, and others representing unhoused and immigrant communities on the ground.

The rise of Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani (1994-2001) to power quickly became a watershed moment in the longer history of attacks against New York’s shelter system. As the unhoused population rose through the 1990s (both families and single adults), the Giuliani administration began to impose a series of punitive policies while launching “an aggressive attack on the legal right to shelter.” While the increase of unhoused people was largely driven by dramatic cuts in Koch and Dinkins-era targeted housing assistance by the second half of the 1990s, Giuliani quickly turned the emphasis on facilities themselves, arguing that the overall number of shelter residents should be cut in half and most stays should be limited to no more than 90 days, a drastic measure that today exceeds Adams’ 30- and 60-day stay caps for migrants and their families.[6] It’s also worth mentioning that in his days as a mayoral candidate in 1993, Giuliani not only suggested contesting the Callahan decree in court, but also advocated for greater privatization, urging the city to “get out of the shelter business” and increasingly contract with nonprofit and corporate vendors to provide services. Giuliani’s call for a free-market, contract-based shelter system is particularly pertinent when considering Adams’ scrutinized public-facing programs for migrants run by the public benefit corporation H+H,  whose position outside the oversight of the comptroller’s office has resulted in multi-million contracts with companies plagued with irregularities and little to no experience running shelters.

However, Giuliani’s biggest blow to the shelter system came about right around the 20th anniversary of the Callahan decree, at a time when individual and family homelessness was on the rise largely due to dramatic cuts in permanent supportive housing and social services. In 1995, Giuliani urged Republican Governor George Pataki (1995-2006) to issue state regulations that would “for the first time make the right to emergency shelter in New York State contingent on the willingness of recipients to comply with a strict code of conduct.” By 1999, these state shelter-ejection regulations enabled Giuliani to propose a “termination program” that sought to eject families and individuals from city shelters for a minimum of 30 days if they failed to meet work requirements and other social service eligibility rules. As the mayoral administration pushed for a system of swift ejection and denial procedures that forced shelter residents to perform workfare assignments in exchange for refuge and threatened homeless parents with eviction and the placement of their children into foster care, housing activists increasingly mobilized to oppose this vision and demand judicial redress. As the Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society challenged the Giuliani plan in court in December 1999, thousands of local organizers, housing activists, religious leaders, civic groups, and elected officials rallied in Manhattan’s Union Square to protest the administration’s new restrictive regulations, as well as the aggressive policing and arrests of unhoused people. After months of communal resistance and legal challenges, in February 2000 New York State Supreme Court Justice Stanley Sklar issued a ruling in Callahan prohibiting the city from implementing its shelter termination program. Upholding the importance of the consent judgment and highlighting the dangers of conditioning shelter guarantees to welfare regulations, Judge Sklar wrote: “The simple bureaucratic error which might send an individual out into the street, because he or she was unable to understand or to cooperate with these requirements might be the error which results in that individual’s death by exposure, death by violence, or death by sheer neglect. The risk is simply too great to take.”

Even though the court invalidated the city incorporation of the Pataki regulations, the codified state-level restrictions were given new life by Giuliani’s successor, Republican Michael Bloomberg (2002-2013), whose tenure witnessed one of the most dramatic increases in city homelessness rates.[7] As the Bloomberg administration’s policy of denying federal housing vouchers to unhoused people pushed the number of families in city shelters to unprecedented levels, Giuliani’s appeal to the Sklar decision right before leaving office allowed the incoming mayor to fight for new shelter restrictions.[8] After years of litigation regarding Pataki’s 1995 shelter-ejection regulations and shelter-denial procedures, Bloomberg’s appeal to the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division ultimately succeeded, effectively overturning the Sklar ruling that had nullified Giuliani’s controversial termination program. The 2003 ruling stated that “contrary to plaintiffs’ contentions, there is nothing in the [Callahan] decree that provides or even suggests that the defendants undertook to provide shelter unconditionally, indefinitely or regardless of need.” As the Pataki rules to expel shelter residents who didn’t comply with certain employment and welfare standards endured, the Bloomberg administration gained unprecedented discretion to enact intensified punitive access reviews for families and individuals seeking refuge, leading to the mayor’s two biggest attacks against the Callahan decree in 2009 and then again in 2011.

First, during the summer of 2009, Bloomberg urged state officials to approve a set of new stark shelter ejection measures, including the requirement for unhoused families to make ‘rent’ payments for the cost of refuge. Under the new state-backed city rules, many unhoused families could be expelled from shelters for over 30 days for missing social services appointments, failing to pay shelter “rent,” and having their welfare case suspended or closed, the latter often attributable to the “bureaucratic errors” that Sklar warned against in his 2000 ruling. While the “rent” requirement was overturned in 2010 by the state legislature upon mounting pressure from housing advocates and replaced with a shelter savings plan, these punitive access regulations continued to disproportionately deny shelter to adults living with mental and chronic illness, as well as separating children from ejected parents. The mayoral administration not only expanded and strengthened the system’s grounds for denying shelter to as many as possible through the Pataki ejection rules, but eventually sought to eliminate its own paper trail. In the mid-2000s, the city began legal action to stop providing shelter termination notices to the Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society, who often defended unhoused clients by invoking the exceptions of the Pataki eviction rules regarding people “whose physical or mental disabilities prevent them from complying with shelter requirements.” In another historic ruling, Judge Sklar upheld the Bloomberg administration’s legal obligation to provide termination notices to prevent the eviction of those with a “limited” ability to defend themselves, a decision that underwent multiple appeals but was reinforced in 2009. Building upon this momentum, the Legal Aid Society, the Coalition for the Homeless, and pro bono attorneys from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale LLP filed a motion in the State Supreme Court demanding more beds for thousands of shelter applicants forced to sleep on benches, floors, and dining room tables as they wait for accommodations. By December 2009, State Supreme Court Judge Judith Gische issued two vital temporary orders that required the city (1) “to shelter vulnerable men and women” and (2) “to halt the systemic, repeated use of overnight-only beds,” effectively outlawing practices to reject shelter applicants by only providing overnight refuge. As a result of this ruling, over the course of the 2009-2010 winter months, the city added hundreds of shelter beds and implemented new procedures to ensure more stable placements.

As housing advocates continued to push for judicial oversight and redress amidst Bloomberg’s austerity attacks against the right to shelter during the recession, the mayor struck again in late 2011 with what critics called a “new shelter denial plan” that sought to “save the city $4 million a year” by investigating adults’ “claims” of homelessness and denying access to those who failed screenings. The Department of Homeless Services’ new rules included investigation procedures for single adult shelter applicants, regulations very similar to previous family admission controls that had been in place for over 15 years, operating under the unsupported assumption that many produced “fraudulent” claims of homelessness to free themselves from rent obligations and access better housing. “You cannot say, ‘I’m tired of paying my rent, therefore, the taxpayers of New York City should just pay my rent,’ ” Bloomberg said regarding the punitive access regulations in a New York Times interview, claiming that just like unhoused families, homeless adults should be required “to show that [they] need shelter.” Both housing advocates and New York’s City Council sued the administration over these requirements, and in the spring of 2012, Judge Gische ruled that these restrictions had not only been instituted without meeting requirements for a public hearing and other procedural steps, but also violated the Callahan decree.[9] While the nullification of Bloomberg’s controversial screening protected unhoused individuals, regulations harking back to the Dinkins era continued to force women and families with young children to “demonstrate that they have no place else to live except a shelter and cooperate with the city’s attempts to verify their claims,” resulting in the normalized exclusion of women unable to prove endangering, abusive companions, domestic violence, and other forms of coercion and brutality.[10]

It’s worth noting that Giuliani and Bloomberg’s repeated attempts to circumscribe and narrow shelter guarantees didn’t emerge in a vacuum, nor did their punitive social services reforms and broader criminalization of unhoused people in the streets, particularly Black and Brown communities. Through the 1990s and into the early 2010s, city and state officials across party lines increasingly criticized New York’s exceptional guarantees as metropolitan governments in Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington D.C. scaled back their shelter infrastructures. “New York City stands alone in the expansiveness of its homeless policies,” said Giuliani in the early 1990s, characterizing shelter policies as “bankrupt and […] in need of major rethinking and overhaul.” Stop-and-frisk and other racially discriminatory policing tactics also became part of the tools deployed by liberal and conservative mayors alike to criminalize, pathologize, and harass largely homeless men living outside of shelters. Giuliani and Bloomberg deployed the NYPD to arrest those who refused shelter or had been recently ejected from facilities, fostering a public safety culture that singled out unsheltered, nonwhite homeless people on the streets and in the subway system as inherently dangerous quasi-criminals and criminals. Local police mistreatment of unsheltered people ultimately resulted in several legal challenges, including charges of selective enforcement and unconstitutional arrests of homeless and poor people for allegedly “loitering and panhandling.” “Streets do not exist in civilized societies for the purpose of people sleeping there,” Giuliani infamously said in 1999. “Bedrooms are for sleeping.” He added that the right to sleep on the streets “doesn’t exist anywhere” and that “the founding fathers never put that in the Constitution.”

Bloomberg’s successor, Democrat Bill de Blasio (2014-2021) repeatedly vowed to tackle the rampant inequality and record levels of homelessness that had made New York into a “tale of two cities.” “We are simply not going to allow this kind of reality to continue,” he said in a press conference shortly after his electoral victory in late 2013. Right around this time, the New York Times underscored just how much the progressive Democrat’s  candidacy had “excited liberals with the way his relentless critique of economic inequality in New York seemed to resonate with voters, who elected him in a landslide.” At the start of his tenure, Mayor de Blasio was very public about his efforts to reverse some of Bloomberg’s most punitive and harmful policies, launching several rent subsidy programs and reinstituting priority access to federally-funded New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartments for unhoused individuals and families. Despite his lofty rhetoric against housing inequality, the mayor’s first term saw the shelter population rise to 60,000 for the first time in the city’s history, and by his second term, the average nightly number of single adults in shelters skyrocketed to more than 18,000, up from around 11,000 when he first entered office. De Blasio’s shelter reforms were initially reminiscent of Koch and Dinkins because of their emphasis on affordable housing and homelessness prevention. As facilities remained at record capacity, the mayoral administration promised to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the shelter system, which resulted in the February 2017 release of “Turning the Tide on Homelessness in New York City,” a five-year reform plan to tackle “a new kind of homelessness […] driven by years of wages not keeping up with the cost of housing in our city.”

The de Blasio administration announced its goals to reduce the then 60,000 sheltered population by 2,500 over five years, as well as replace commercial hotels and privately-owned “cluster site” apartments with high-quality, purpose-built facilities. While such commitments were criticized by advocates for their limited scope, their implementation over the years often led to mixed and controversial results. On the one hand, the rate of sheltered families fell by about 30%, from 2013 to 2021, a drop that many attributed to growing city investments in homelessness prevention services, including rental assistance vouchers, expanded access to rent arrears, free legal services for low-income tenants in housing court, and an eviction moratorium enacted during the Covid-19 pandemic.[11] However, despite these important strides, critics were quick to point to de Blasio’s controversial tightening of shelter eligibility as yet another factor for the drop in sheltered families, a move that built on the Bloomberg legacy to screen “fraudulent” applications. While the mayor initially promised to “reform unfair and overly punitive eligibility review rules that deny shelter to too many needy families,” in 2016, the city backtracked and instead requested greater discretion to reject applications and put the burden of proof directly on families. By 2021, only 24% of family shelter applications were approved, a drop from previous years’ already low 40% and 50% acceptance rates. Reminiscent of Bloomberg’s “assessment” units, Department of Homeless Services (DHS) staff titled “fraud investigator[s]” were tasked with demanding two-year histories of recent housing situations and emergency contacts to determine whether applicants had an alternative place to live. In yet another instance of the importance of community resistance and judicial oversight in the preservation of the right to shelter, Legal Aid Society activists successfully appealed many of these application rejections on the grounds of McCain v. Koch, the 1986 lawsuit that ultimately led to the historic 2008 ruling by State Supreme Court Judge Jacqueline Silbermann preventing the city from rejecting families solely “because of the non-cooperation of third parties” or “based on their inability to provide requested documentation where the family has otherwise cooperated with the investigation.” In 2021, housing advocates submitted nearly 1,400 “temporary housing assistance” appeals, nearly tripling those filed in 2019 and resulting in over 520 DHS reversals, 38% of the original rejections.

On the other hand, de Blasio’s efforts to “turn the tide” of homelessness resulted in a 60% rise in single adults living in the main shelter system from about 10,100 in 2013 to roughly 16,700 in 2021. Advocates pointed to various factors behind this increase, including the thousands of people released from upstate prisons who increasingly ended up going directly to shelters due to landlord discrimination, lack of job opportunities, and other structural barriers to affordable housing. Additionally, while eviction and landlord harassment protections helped reduce family homelessness rates, such measures proved to be less effective when it came to single adults, who advocates said often became homeless for other reasons besides eviction, including the severe shortage of “deeply affordable” single-occupancy units. Advocates attributed the rise in the single adult shelter population to what they termed an “egregious disconnect” between the mayor’s shelter management policies and his signature Housing New York and Housing New York 2.0. development plans. While de Blasio’s publicized goal to build or preserve at least 200,000 units of affordable housing through public subsidies and extended rent regulations was met on paper by the end of 2021, advocates underscored just how misleading this figure was in relation to New York’s lowest-income tenants and those seeking to leave the shelter system.

In February 2021, the Community Service Society of New York, an anti-poverty non-profit, published its report on de Blasio’s housing legacy, emphasizing that after an initial surge in 2014, the number of supportive housing placements declined from 2,174 in 2014 to 1,448 in 2018, largely due to “both city and state failures to meet supportive housing development commitments.” While the overall rental housing stock undoubtedly grew during de Blasio, higher-priced apartments were largely subsidized at the expense of lower-priced ones, leaving most shelter residents unable to transition into supportive housing. Researchers at the Community Service Society of New York wrote that while the 300,000 units of affordable housing metric was often perceived as one of the program’s primary sources of legitimacy and strength, it became a cop-out to build more high-end apartments while ignoring the city’s “actually existing affordability crisis.” According to the 2021 report, de Blasio’s chasing of large quantities of the “wrong metrics” incentivized the administration to prioritize plans and programs that were most expedient, “those that produced the greatest number of units with a given amount of investment, or those most favored by the private developers and investors upon which their plans relied,” rather than those which would have “met the greatest need,” ultimately leading to the production of large quantities of housing that remains “unaffordable to most neighborhood residents and unavailable to most homeless New Yorkers.[12]

As more and more unhoused and low-income tenants fell through the cracks in de Blasio’s construction and renovation policies, the city in the 2010s also suffered from the broader effects of devolution that for decades cut federal and state funds for municipal affordable housing. Not only have federal funds to cities declined precipitously over the past 40 years, with public housing bearing some of the most severe cuts, but state governments have financially retrenched as well, often while retaining full control of taxation guidelines and other key elements of urban policy.[13] Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo proved a particularly unreliable ally to the mayor, continuously shifting payment obligations for shelters, rent subsidies, and other affordable housing projects back to the city and other localities, as well as unnecessarily delaying the release of state funds for supportive housing. In 2020, Cuomo refused to include the Home Stability Support (HSS) program in his fiscal year executive budget for 2021, despite broad bipartisan and advocates’ support for the state-funded rent supplement for those eligible for public assistance facing eviction, homelessness, or loss of housing due to domestic violence or hazardous living conditions.

The last four decades have seen both the state and federal governments cut more and more funding for vouchers, rent supplements, unit construction, and other affordable housing pipeline programs and social services at the city level to keep people permanently out of shelters. In this light, Governor Hochul’s limited financial support to Adams’ migrant emergency shelters and Biden’s allocation of $30 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds despite city officials applying for $3.5 billion become less surprising and more representative of a larger shift that favors market-based solutions and private-sector alternatives at the cost of meaningful public investment. The circular, sensationalized, and often unfruitful discussions about “federal aid” between Adams, Hochul, and Biden reveal just how normalized narrow, ahistorical framings of homelessness have become, rendering it an inexplicable, isolated, and unfortunate phenomenon that touches those unable or unwilling to be responsible workers and tenants.[14] According to prevailing logics, the migrant and housing crises are undoubtedly and exclusively the city’s to “solve,” a framing that while popular among policymakers, greatly obscures the role that decades of diminishing federal/state affordable housing investments have played in the rise of New York’s shelter population, regardless of the current influx of new foreign-born applicants.

From Koch to de Blasio, liberal and conservative mayors have chipped away at the right to shelter with equal force, even if their strategies, justifications, and rhetoric have varied. Through an uneven mix of social services restrictions, aggressive court challenges of city shelter provisions, refuge access screening campaigns, and accelerated ejection protocols for mentally ill and unemployed shelter residents, local administrations have sought to transform the remarkable Callahan consent decree into an increasingly qualified, constricted, and relative obligation. In turn, they have increasingly subjected the shelter mandate to rationales of fiscal austerity, racial prejudice, and “emergency” discourses of a system at capacity. While this recent history of attacks against the right to shelter has been referenced by journalists, advocates, and some local representatives, it often gets lost when discussing where Mayor Adams’ actions fall in a larger context.

Efforts by New York’s last five mayoral administrations to reform the shelter system according to their political and economic needs reveal a more complicated story, one that undermines Adams’ current narratives about a mounting crisis caused almost exclusively by arriving migrants. From Giuliani’s deeply prejudiced depictions of unhoused men of color as “crazy” criminals-in-the-making, to Bloomberg’s rhetoric blaming homeless individuals “for their predicament,” race and class have long enabled mayors to distance the city from its legal obligations to provide shelter under Callahan. Grounding their actions as painful, yet necessary emergency responses with no room for scrutiny, leaders like de Blasio and Adams have also justified drastic shelter access restrictions and stay caps by repeatedly invoking large-scale disruptions such as the Covid-19 pandemic and now the “migrant crisis.”

Adams’ ongoing efforts to dismantle the Callahan decree sit amidst a much larger tradition of mayoral reform that has relentlessly tried to reframe and reshape the right to shelter. Community resistance to his actions also stems from a much longer tradition of cross-class local activism, coalitional protests, legal action, court battles, and sustained grassroots calls for judicial redress and oversight. Since the late 1970s, advocates have turned to the courts to protect the rights of immigrant families, impoverished residents, older adults, and others unable to access affordable housing in a city reckoning with deep structural inequities and a sprawling cost of living crisis.  Judges at New York’s State Supreme Court have played a fundamental role in upholding the right to shelter, reigning in unchecked executive actions and illegal modifications to the standards of refuge built over the last 40 years.

Unhoused New Yorkers, Sheltered Migrants: The Erosion of Affordable Housing & a Shrinking Asylum System

For the last year and a half, discussions among local, state, and federal representatives have hinged on how foreign-born shelter applicants pushed New York’s already strained shelter system to the brink. Cutting through such clear-cut, linear narratives, homeless advocates and migrant rights organizers have dissected euphemistic terms like “migrant crisis,” “housing crisis,” and “cost-of-living crisis,” pushing authorities across all government levels and New Yorkers themselves to reckon with the complex, decades-in-the-making realities behind this language. More than four decades after the inception of the right to shelter through the Callahan consent decree, understandings of homelessness continue to be largely ruled by simplifications and distortions about individual effort, morality, work, substance abuse, race, and mental health. Such limited understandings often feed sensationalized debates about “what to do” with the unhoused – which now includes a significant foreign-born population from Latin America, the Caribbean,  and West Africa  – obscuring decades of simmering social and economic crises that have systematically eroded the possibility of basic housing for many.

On October 1, 2023, former Democratic President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) went on WABC radio’s “The Cats Roundtable,” where he suggested that New York’s blanket right to shelter was “harming” the city amidst the ongoing “migrant crisis.” “Gov. Hochul thinks it should be modified, and it probably should under the circumstances,” said the former president, who went on to decry the “broken” and “not well manned” federal immigration system for preventing migrants who “want to work”  from obtaining formal authorization. “We’re supposed to shelter people who can’t get work permits for six months. […] we need to change that, they ought to work. […] they need to be working, paying taxes and paying their way,” continued Clinton, who emphasized that most arriving migrants “have no interest in being on welfare for themselves and their families.” Pointing to the need “to rush through these things” i.e., speed formal work authorization for sheltered migrants, the former president revealed just how distorted high-level political understandings of both homelessness and immigration remain today.

On the one hand, Clinton’s equation of wages with guaranteed housing stands in stark opposition to the reality on the ground, with studies on New York’s sheltered population finding that close to half of single adults and nearly 40% of families in city-run facilities earned some form of income but remained unable to find longterm, affordable housing. Such high levels of under-employment – having one or more jobs that still don’t add up to a living wage – reveal the limits of prescribing employment as a panacea in an increasingly unaffordable city for more people. While in the 1980s and early 1990s, single adults largely populated the city’s shelter system, today around 70% of shelter residents are part of families, particularly households of color headed by single mothers.  An estimated 34% of sheltered families with young children are headed by at least one working adult, suggesting alarming levels of economic stagnation, earning inequality, and people’s inability to access longterm housing despite being fully or partially employed.  “Few portrayals exist of homeless persons as wage earners,” wrote researchers in a 2018 study on the employment and earning patterns of adults in city shelters over the last two decades. They pointed to how stereotypical portrayals of the unhoused population as “drunk, stoned, crazy and sick single adults” and “families headed by single parents beset by trauma and lacking human capital” have long shadowed “more fundamental questions related to the relevance of work in a setting of extreme poverty.[15]” Upon finding that a significant proportion of unhoused adults had extensive work histories, the study concluded that despite the important role that employment plays in driving people in and out of shelters, “the precarious nature of low-wage employment leaves a broader segment of the working low-income people facing the very real risk of homelessness.[16]” In other words, Clinton’s calls to “let them work,” which echoed sentiments continuously expressed by Hochul and Adams, left out a very important part of the story: many people on the verge of homelessness or already residing in city-run shelters do work, but still can’t afford basic housing because of structural factors well beyond their control. According to advocates and researchers, a profound lack of affordable housing at the lowest income levels stands as the primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families, along with eviction, doubled-up or severely overcrowded housing, domestic violence,  job loss and underemployment, and hazardous housing conditions.[17] Besides the fact that the city’s overall median household income would need to double to afford the overall median asking rent of $2,750, there is an “extreme vacancy shortage” among the city’s lowest-cost units. The vacancy rate for homes listed below $1,500 was less than 1%,  the lowest in 30 years according to the most recent data collected by the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey. Unhoused single adults often battle an even more severe shortage of “deeply affordable” single-occupancy units while displaying higher rates of mental health issues, chronic illness, and substance abuse disorders.

On the other hand, Clinton’s acknowledgment of a “broken” and “unmanned” immigration system reflects a broader perception – shared by Democrats and Republicans despite varying rhetoric – that too many people are crossing the border and requesting asylum. Clinton was quick to lament how the “migrant crisis” has been “very beneficial for the Republicans,” embodying a misleading, yet common understanding of immigration today among policymakers, pundits, and a significant proportion of Americans across the political spectrum: arriving [nonwhite] migrants are a “problem” to be either exacerbated or curbed by federal action, party ideology, and various forms of policing, detention, and expulsion. This kind of framing not only renders migrants themselves passive, abstract figures in a larger struggle over the porosity of the Southwestern border, but lets partisan leaders off the hook of reckoning with the longer history of federal immigration restriction and asylum policy, which has been shaped by liberals and conservatives alike.[18] Literary scholar Alicia Schmidt Camacho has explored the instrumentality of employing a vague “brokenness” as the main lens to frame immigration discussions, particularly among those who, like Clinton, have contributed to the edification of a deeply flawed, punitive system that enables the vilification of “illegal” migrants while still benefiting from their often unsanctioned labor. “The brokenness of the system has installed a peculiar — and, to my mind, dangerous — form of governmentality based in failure,” notes Schmidt Camacho, underscoring the “particular functionality” of a perceived “disorder of immigration enforcement” for federal lawmakers and others who have capitalized on the “radical vulnerability” of largely nonwhite migrants.[19] Like Clinton reminded listeners, those caught in a “broken” immigration system are expected to “pay their way” regardless of their ascribed illegality. This is already a reality for the tens of thousands of unsanctioned migrants and asylum seekers (including some of the 65,000 currently sheltered migrants, but also the 150,000 overall new arrivals to the city since the spring of 2022), who have joined the ranks of New York’s low-wage, informal, underground “gig economy” in the last year and a half.  These new laborers (most without work permits) have started engaging in day work and other forms of third-party and informalized employment, which for the last few decades has powered sectors as diverse as construction, light manufacturing, food services, delivery, corporate and domestic cleaning, childcare, elderly care, and hospitality, employing thousands of previously arrived migrants from Mexico, Central America, West Africa, the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, and China.[20] However, much like for the city’s native-born unhoused population, earning irregular and precarious wages hasn’t allowed most migrants to get out of shelters, particularly as their liminal immigration status blocks them from accessing rent subsidies and other affordable housing pipeline programs.  In a summer 2023 report by immigration advocacy group Make the Road, 97% of 766 surveyed migrants were then living in shelters, with 93% of them reporting that they hadn’t been able to move out because they didn’t make enough income or steady work.

However misguided and distorting, Clinton’s remarks about the need for migrant labor (which included hailing the Canadian immigration system for its incorporation of “a large number of immigrants […] where they’re needed and […] wanted”) touched on the pervasive, yet often unacknowledged reliances of various U.S. economic sectors on undocumented migrants and other foreign-born people not formally authorized to work. Current estimates of the number of undocumented migrants living in the U.S. range from 10.5 to 12 million, a number that reflects a decades-long history of essential migrant low-wage labor across U.S. agriculture, industry, and most recently, a sprawling service economy. In the spring of 2020, a report by The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs found that nearly one in six city jobs lost due to the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns was held by an undocumented worker, and that Latin American, Caribbean, Asian, and West African immigrants were overrepresented in frontline, “essential” sectors, including hospital maintenance, commercial and household cleaning, private transportation, construction, and grocery, delivery, and food services. Researchers located most of New York’s “essential workforce” servicing Manhattan and other areas at the height of the health emergency in migrant-dense neighborhoods such as Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. Such a pronounced reliance on undocumented labor during the pandemic ultimately led to the passage of the state-level “Excluded Workers Fund,” the country’s first multi-billion dollar relief package for undocumented workers, whose labor had been often expected, but seldom recognized.

While the essential, low-wage labor of unsanctioned immigrants became particularly visible for many in 2020, the large-scale employment of Latin Americans and others without work authorization in cities like New York has spanned multiple decades. When the U.S. federal government terminated the Bracero Program in the mid-1960s, a 22-year binational agreement that produced over 4.5 million contracts for Mexican agricultural guest workers across 24 states, those who had become accustomed to laboring in American fields (both with and without a formal Bracero contract) were “dealt a huge blow.[21]” As noted by historian Ana Minian, such an impact was compounded by the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which imposed the country’s first numerical limits on Latin American immigrants.[22] “It was only after no other real avenue existed for Mexicans to migrate north legally that illegality became the primary way in which they understood their journeys north,” underscored Minian, complicating narratives such as Clinton’s, which render work authorization a necessary, yet inexplicably onerous and elusive “step” in the process of arrival for migrants.[23]

The large-scale rise of migrant contract workers embodied by the Bracero Program (1942-1964) reverberated well beyond wartime labor needs and conditions, producing distinct immigrant working cultures, patterns of corporate and communal recruitment, and expected mobility, both sanctioned and unsanctioned. The growing employment of Mexican contract workers simultaneously fed informalized networks of unregistered migrant laborers, derogatorily called “wetbacks” for their unsanctioned crossings through the Rio Grande river, who along with Braceros, became targets of labor abuses such as wage theft and racial discrimination. Issues of work authorization first surfaced formally in the 1980s, when the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) marked the beginning of a new era of immigration restriction. One of IRCA’s many provisions was the enactment of “employer sanctions,” which prohibited employers from hiring “aliens known to be unauthorized to work in the United States.” While employer sanctions were often touted as a measure to curb undocumented migration, in reality, their virtually nonexistent mechanisms of enforcement enabled most employers to still hire unauthorized migrants without any consequences, while now holding leverage over criminalized people whose employment status could be “verified” at any time.[24]

Threats about reporting workers to immigration authorities became increasingly common, particularly as a means to sanction other workplace abuses, including wage theft, no overtime payment, substandard safety and health conditions, and harassment.[25] As the border became increasingly militarized by the late 1980s, Mexicans who had previously engaged in circular, seasonal labor migration opted to settle permanently in the U.S. for fear that they would not be able to reenter after visiting their hometowns.[26] By the early 2000s, undocumented Mexican migrants were regularly employed without work authorization, many in New York restaurants, kitchens, stores, warehouses, construction sites, homes, and even upstate vineyards, apple orchards, and dairy farms. Behind Clinton’s and so many others’ calls to “let” newly arrived migrants work stands a widely diverging reality – one of constant employment for what has become an increasingly multinational and multiethnic unsanctioned labor force that now includes undocumented Central Americans and Haitians whose asylum claims were disproportionately rejected in the 1980s and 1990s[27]; Colombians and Ecuadorans who overstayed their tourist visas; as well as migrants from West Africa, China, India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Rather than an exception, the norm for many arriving migrants and asylum seekers over the years has been to work across various informal,  yet essential low-wage sectors that have transformed New York into a city of hyper-diversified services. In a summer 2023 interview with local newsroom THE CITY, Van Tran, a sociology professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) said he was optimistic about the economic and social effects of this recent wave of migration. “In the long run all of this noise that you’re hearing and distraction will come to pass, and there will be a lot of tremendous opportunities lying ahead,” said Tran, noting that many New Yorkers already rely on informal labor for cheaper child care, restaurant services, and delivery. “Migrants’ presence actually subsidizes the way a lot of us live.” While most of the 150,000 arriving migrants currently lack work authorization, and many who sought to initiate asylum cases have faced a shortage of legal assistance and significant backlogs, people have looked for and found work, particularly across industries already powered by undocumented migrants such as delivery apps, informal vending, food services, and domestic work.

Many in New York today have decried that a meager 2% of an estimated 150,000 migrants have actually applied for work authorization, even though this larger population certainly includes children and others ineligible for work permits. However, in addition to the previously outlined processes that have shaped unsanctioned, unregulated migrant labor into a subsidizing, tacitly sanctioned economic force for many employers and companies, one of the biggest reasons why there are so few successful applicants for work permits and asylum more broadly has to do with the state of disarray of the U.S. asylum system today. In its survey of 766 migrants, Make the Road

found that only 50 had been able to find a lawyer to help them with their asylum claims, and only 20 had received work authorization, with many surveyed not yet passing the six-month waiting period. While federal policy has been treated as little more than the unfortunate backdrop of New York’s “migrant crisis” as figures like Adams and Hochul demand more resources directly from President Biden, Clinton’s remarks about a “broken” immigration system are particularly fitting for a federally-mandated asylum system that has shrunk dramatically over the last seven years and has purposefully made it more difficult for many to apply for asylum.

Since the spring of 2023, Adams and Hochul continually invoked anticipated “surges” of migrants that would be triggered by the end of Title 42, an ad-hoc pandemic-era directive devised by the Trump administration that made use of an obscure 1944 public health law to quickly expel people arriving at the southern border (including those trying to apply for asylum) for over three years. While the Biden administration continued the controversial policy up until May 2023, Republicans and Democrats intensely debated what a post-Title 42 asylum policy would look like without the sanctioned ability to summarily expel migrants back to Mexico. The Biden administration’s response was the Circumvention of Lawful Pathways (CLP) rule, which established that people who crossed the border without authorization were automatically ineligible for asylum if they hadn’t previously applied from a third country or secured a hearing through a government smartphone app called CPB One. While an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit initially nullified CLP for violating federal immigration law, a panel of three judges from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to put a temporary stay on the regulations, enabling Biden’s ruling (described by human rights advocates as an “asylum ban”) to stay in place pending more judicial hearings. Such a dramatic erosion of longstanding asylum guarantees has coincided with the unraveling of New York’s “migrant crisis,” as more people have been prevented from applying for asylum based on the way they entered the country. Most recently, the Biden administration signaled its openness to several controversial measures, including “heightening the standard for initial asylum screenings,” numerical limitations of asylum claims, instituting a “safe third country provision that would deny asylum to migrants who pass through another country en route to the U.S.,” and a nationwide revival of a fast-track deportation process known as “expedited removal,” hoping to sway Republicans to pass a previously blocked emergency spending bill on border security and military aid.[28]

Scholars and advocates have interpreted this latest effort to weaken asylum guarantees as part of a decades-long institutional erosion that has left more and more people outside of this status while politicizing the granting of provisional protections such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Immigration scholar Yael Schacher has examined how despite its promises to “bring uniformity and end […] practices of treating asylum applicants differently based on their race or nationality, their place of application, or their immigration status,” the 1980 Refugee Act signed by Democratic President Jimmy Carter was interpreted very differently on the ground. Through the late twentieth century, immigration authorities adapted and cemented regulations that held asylum seekers to a much higher standard than refugees vetted overseas, gradually enabling quicker rejections of largely nonwhite applicants from Latin America, the Caribbean, West Africa, and others entering the U.S. without authorization.[29]

When it comes to TPS, the temporary protective status that the Biden administration recently authorized for an estimated half a million Venezuelans, it’s equally important to reckon with America’s longer history of emergency refuge, which as noted by historian María Cristina García, has been marked by insufficient, highly politicized, cost-prohibitive humanitarian “concessions” for a very limited group of people. García’s analysis of TPS emphasizes that applicants must be physically present in the U.S. to access this temporary protection, which is often extended through Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), leaving people in a precarious and liminal status with no path to permanent residence and or citizenship. As noted by García, for over a quarter century, TPS has created a liminal population that has been “both part of the nation and yet legally on its margins” (16). Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Montserrat, Haiti, and now Venezuela are among the countries and territories that have received TPS status from 1990 to 2020, a designation fully decided by the federal government. García emphasizes that while TPS has allowed people to live and work in the U.S. for certain periods, the indefinite and fully discretional status has also contributed to massive insecurity and liminality, making it difficult “to plan for the future or to belong anywhere.[30]

Clinton’s criticism of “broken” work authorization processes barely scratches the surface of what the asylum-seeking process has become for so many. As those in charge of an evolving immigration system have increasingly pushed people out of basic asylum protections while silently sanctioning the low-wage labor of many bearing a range of precarious, “illegal” statuses, it’s worth sitting with this longer history of restriction and human rights. In turn, the insistent rhetoric of figures as diverse as Clinton, Adams, Hochul, Biden, and Abbot for migrants to come “legally” and quickly gain “work authorization” collapses when reckoning with this much more complicated story, which carries decades of contradictions, paradoxes, unacknowledged economic reliances, and political silences. Today, while many newly arrived migrants in New York City ask for the opportunity to “fix” their papers, many are bound to ultimately be labeled undocumented because of bureaucratic hurdles, restricted eligibility, and other structural obstacles that have little to do with their own efforts to adjust their status. Many are also bound to join the undocumented workforce in and beyond New York, which despite the rising anti-immigrant rhetoric across the political spectrum, remains a vital source of economic activity in the U.S.

In the spring of 2023, New York’s Public Advocate Jumaane Williams led members of New York’s Congressional delegation and immigration activists in a Washington D.C direct action that unveiled a series of proposals that both recognized the deep roots of the “migrant crisis” and defended the city’s right to shelter “in a moment of immense need for so many asylum seekers […] exacerbated by a lack of decisive and timely state and federal action.” Besides calling on city, state, and federal authorities to “uphold the right to shelter, not undercut it,” Williams underscored that the “migrant crisis” didn’t unilaterally originate “when the first bus arrived at Port Authority,” but is instead an embedded reflection of “decades of inaction toward reforming our immigration infrastructure and agencies’ inability to adapt to the needs of people arriving in our country.” Some of the group’s proposed actions included issuing new TPS designations, redesignations, and extensions to more migrants; passing the federal Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act to reduce the waiting period for work authorizations from 180 days to 30 days; and approving the New Way Forward Act to reform the immigration system’s interactions with the criminal legal system that disproportionately police and detain migrants of color.

Just like Williams invoked a longer history of selective enforcement and punitive immigration policies disproportionately targeting nonwhite hemispheric migrants, in the fall of 2023, New York’s Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez compared the proportions of the current influx of migrants with the more than twelve million immigrants that passed through the U.S. immigration portal at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. “When it comes to people coming to New York City today, are nothing, I’m telling you, nothing, compared to the daily amounts of people that we saw coming in through Ellis Island in the first half of this century,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a video posted to her Instagram account. Conservatives were quick to mock and discredit the comparison. Ashley St. Clair posted on social media X, “Girl math is saying immigrants coming legally through Ellis Island is the same as 3 million undocumented migrants pouring through our border and costing NYC $1,000,000,000 to house migrants for free in hotels.” Billionaire and X owner Elon Musk supported St. Clair, best known for her recent publishing of an anti-trans children’s book titled Elephants Are Not Birds, citing her post and adding: “She’s just not that smart.”

St. Clair’s assured distinctions between those who came “legally” and those who didn’t reflect broader distortions of a period of intense immigration to the U.S., largely shaped by Eastern and Southern European arrivals. It also reflected just how normalized and reified the racialized underpinnings of legality have become for many conservatives across media, business, politics, and policy circles, who are quick to default to narratives of inherently legal and illegal migrants, a status often hinging on their perceived class, race, and ethnicity. As noted by historian Matthew Jacobson, migrants now generally described as coming “legally” through Ellis Island were once deeply criminalized and racialized as “other”, a reality reflected in the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. The legislation established “national origins quotas” that favored immigration from Great Britain and northern Europe while curbing the arrival of people from Eastern and Southern Europe, reflecting particularly stark prejudices against Catholic Irish and Eastern European Jewish populations.[31]

Historian Mae Ngai has examined how the fall of these discriminatory quotas was in part, the product of sustained protest by European racialized communities, including religious and ethnic organizations, organized labor, and civil rights advocates who pushed for the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. The landmark legislation repealed the system of national origins quotas, replacing it with a “new system of quotas that were at once global (applying to all countries) and evenly distributed (20,000 per country).”[32] The mid-1960s opened up legal new mechanisms to “unmake” the previously established “illegality” of Polish, Italian, Irish, and other Eastern and Southern European unsanctioned migrants through statutory and administrative reforms, such as pre-examination and suspension of deportation.In what Jacobson has called a process of reformation of what were once considered the “lower races of Europe” into white ethnic Americanness, at least 200,000 migrants previously deemed “deportable aliens” became lawful residents and citizens, a phenomenon that complicates linear, ahistorical perceptions of “legality” such as St. Clair’s. In turn, Latin American, Asian, and Caribbean migrants faced growing racialized criminalization and exclusion during and after the mid-1960s due to new federal standards and selective on-the-ground policing, making it clear that just as administrative relief could quickly “unmake” illegal immigrants, restriction and deportation could target new populations racialized as “other.”[33]

The Right to the American City

More attuned to this history of shifting understandings of race, citizenship, and immigration status, several scholars, activists, and even local New York representatives have made reflections similar to Ocasio-Cortez’s. Some compared the current moment to previous contributions by Irish and other Eastern and Southern European immigrants to the city’s economy and population growth in the nineteenth century, while others emphasized how generations of Latin American, Caribbean, African, and other migrants of color transformed large and small cities through a difficult urban postwar period.[34] In a summer 2023 interview with THE CITY, historian Tyler Anbinder noted that between 1845 and 1855, the Irish population of New York tripled as many fled the potato famine, helping to boost the city’s population from about 370,000 people to 630,000. “They were the most impoverished people who have ever arrived,” said Anbinder, underscoring how despite the deep racial and class animosity faced by this criminalized population, “the famine immigrants became hugely important for turbocharging the New York economy, mostly in the building industry.”

In a recent conference hosted by Columbia University on the migrant crisis, historian A. K. Sandoval-Strausz echoed Anbinder’s reflections, but set them in a completely different period. The scholar emphasized just how crucial hemispheric and other migrant communities have been to cities mitigating decline and disinvestment over the last five decades. Refuting Adams’ claims that newly arrived migrants will “destroy” New York City, Sandoval-Strausz noted that Latin American and Asian communities have repopulated and reinvested in “hollowed out” cities plagued by white suburban flight, devolution, deindustrialization, and stark budget cuts. Other scholars and representatives have underscored this reality, which saw New York’s population drop by more than 800,000 by the late 1970s and over 620,000 manufacturing jobs get lost amidst a deep fiscal crisis that nearly led the city to bankruptcy. As more foreign-born workers and residents came to the city, many from the same regions reflected in today’s newly arrived migrants, they contributed to a process of reinvestment and economic recovery. By 2009, immigrants had risen to 36% of the city population from 18% in 1970, and represented 45% of employed people.[35]

In a September 2023 op-ed for The Nation, Comptroller Lander, who recently restricted Adams’ previously unchecked ability to engage in emergency migrant shelter contracts after various scandals, emphasized the dangers of obscuring and distorting the city’s longstanding history of immigration. “Immigration helped save New York City after the fiscal crisis of the 1970s,” he wrote, highlighting that “when the federal government told NYC to ‘drop dead,’ it was in large part the belief of new waves of immigrants in the future of our city that helped drive a new era of growth and creativity.” Moving closer to the contemporary moment, Lander urged New Yorkers to think back to the devastation the pandemic wrought upon the city, and to consider just how remarkable it is that “just a few short years later, tens of thousands of people who […] walked across a continent to get here are eager to build their lives in NYC.” Noting that many of the newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers have fled violence, discrimination, and destitution, the city comptroller called on a “recommitment to the vision of our city that our own past shows we can be — and the management to realize it.”

As the future of the right to shelter remains uncertain and more migrants report being expelled from shelters as a cold winter rages on, it’s crucial to engage with the intersecting histories that many insist on erasing and distorting. Such histories reflect the outsized importance of community resistance and judicial oversight against aggressive mayoral reform regarding the Callahan decree, as well as the ways that many have fought against a federal bureaucracy intent on criminalizing and restricting immigration from various parts of the world. As prejudiced discourses against Black and Latinx unhoused communities merge with racialized rhetoric against migrants of color, it becomes ever more important to contextualize attention-grabbing headlines with these interconnected, multi-dimensional, illuminating vignettes of a recent and more distant past.

[1] Obtaining full and representative census data of sheltered adults and children has presented challenges for journalists and advocates, particularly because of the city’s counterintuitive and largely inaccessible counting practices. For years, mayoral administrations pointed to a daily census published by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), which excluded thousands staying in facilities managed by other city agencies. Under a 2011 law, the city began reporting a monthly cross-agency count, but such data wasn’t always presented in accessible ways. In the summer of 2023, City Council legislation required various agencies to modify their data sharing models on unhoused New Yorkers, unveiling a new, more comprehensive methodology. Since August 2023, counts now include the thousands of newly arrived immigrants living in non-DHS shelters, largely those housed in Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers (HERRCs). Combining data from DHS daily reports, temporary housing open data, and monthly asylum seekers report, local newsroom City Limits is compiling all the available data in an updated shelter tracker to be updated daily and monthly. For more explanatory statistics on shelter census data see Spauster, Patrick, Adrian Nesta, and Emma Whitford, “Tracking NYC’s Record-High Homeless Shelter Population,” City Limits, December 7, 2023.

[2] For more on the limits and drawbacks of TPS and the broader devolution of U.S. asylum law see García, María Cristina, State of Disaster: the Failure of U.S. Migration Policy In an Age of Climate Change (2022); Schacher, Yael, “Misreading History: The Supreme Court and the Thwarting of the U.S. Asylum System since the 1980s,” in Whose America?: U.S. Immigration Policy Since 1980 (2023).

[3] See Main, Thomas James,  Homelessness In New York City: Policymaking From Koch to De Blasio (2016), p. 67.

[4] Id.,  p. 35-37.

[5] Id., p. 69.

[6] From 1989 to 2005, under four New York mayors, the city assisted over 53,000 unhoused families (including over 100,000 children) to secure long-term, permanent housing using federal housing programs/vouchers. During the same period, an additional 11,000 homeless families (including over 20,000 children) were able to transition from shelters to city-subsidized apartments, many created under Koch’s Housing New York program. This combined use of federal, state, and municipal housing assistance began with Koch, was advanced unevenly under Dinkins and Giuliani, and endured through the first three years of Bloomberg’s tenure, which activists said contributed to a significant reduction in family homelessness from 2003 to 2004. However, the Giuliani/Bloomberg transition period revealed a dramatic reduction in the production of subsidized units, which dropped from an annual average of 3,700 in the early 1990s to fewer than 300 by 2002. See Coalition for the Homeless, “Why Are So Many People Homeless?”

[7] Under the Bloomberg administration, the number of unhoused people sleeping in municipal shelters each night rose by 71%, and the number of homeless families rose by 83%, resulting in the city’s first time housing over 50,000 in its shelter system. According to advocates at the Coalition for the Homeless, the historic rise in NYC homelessness under Bloomberg was due to two main factors: (1) the city’s worsening housing affordability crisis, made more acute by the lingering effects of the national economic recession; and (2) the failure of Mayor Bloomberg’s homeless policies, particularly his elimination of all permanent housing assistance for homeless families. See Coalition for the Homeless, “Why Are So Many People Homeless?”

[8] In October 2004, the Bloomberg administration halted the longstanding practice of granting priority access to federal housing vouchers to unhoused families, which had enabled recipients to pay their landlords no more than 30% of their income in rent, with the federal government paying the rest. Without citing any evidence, city officials claimed that the supply of vouchers had run short, that they believed that some families purposely entered shelters as a shortcut to receive housing vouchers, and that once the practice was stopped, the number of families applying for emergency shelter would decrease. Upon eliminating priority federal housing referrals for unhoused families and substituting flawed, temporary rent subsidies, in 2010, the Bloomberg administration dealt its final blow by terminating the Advantage program, the last remaining temporary subsidy program run by the city. See Bosman, Julie, “Bloomberg Policy Blamed for Families in Shelters,” The New York Times, April 22, 2009; Scholl, Diana, “Critics Of Homeless Program Fight To Save It,” City Limits, March 11, 2011; Coalition for the Homeless, “Why Are So Many People Homeless?”

[9] Bloomberg appealed the Gische 2012 ruling and by late 2013, the Court of Appeals upheld the original ruling nullifying the city’s punitive shelter access restrictions. See Coalition for the Homeless, “Court of Appeals Blocks Bloomberg Policy.”

[10] Women and children have gained significant, yet uneven shelter protections in the last four decades. In 1983, the class action lawsuit Eldredge v. Koch on behalf of homeless women established that the Callahan decree was “equally applicable to women’s shelters,” and is most often used to directly challenge substandard conditions in women’s shelters. Three years later, the McCain v. Koch ruling held that homeless families with children were entitled to emergency shelter, on both constitutional and statutory grounds, and a preliminary injunction was granted prohibiting denial of such shelter to eligible homeless families. McCain v. Koch has been pivotal for shelter advocates to challenge shelter access and other restrictions targeting families with young children. In related litigation, advocates won additional protections for children and families. Cosentino v. Perales, for instance, determined that children could not be separated from their parents and placed into foster care solely due to the family’s lack of housing.

After years of refusals regarding an enforceable legal right to shelter for families, city and state officials agreed to a settlement of litigation involving homeless families in 2008. The final judgment in Boston v. City of New York ensured the legal right to shelter for homeless families with children. For more on the right to shelter’s judicial history, see Coalition for the Homeless, “The Right to Shelter for Homeless New Yorkers: Twenty Years and Counting;” Bobelian, Michael, “The Contentious History Behind New York City’s Right to Shelter.”

[11] By 2018, the right-to-counsel program had already shown promising initial results. Evictions in New York City dropped 37% below the 2013 rate. In fact, 2018 marked the first time in 13 years that the number of evictions in the city fell below 20,000 per year. A suite of rent subsidy programs launched by de Blasio were used to stabilize people in their homes and to help others move out of shelters and into affordable housing. Between fiscal years 2015 and 2018, over 23,000 households exited or avoided shelters thanks to city-initiated voucher programs, such as the Living in Communities (LINC) program. In 2018, the city’s rent subsidies were largely consolidated into the new CityFHEPS program, which has faced mounting issues in recent years. In 2021, a NY1 investigation found that CityFHEPS vouchers presented by formerly sheltered prospective tenants were routinely (and illegally) rejected by landlords. For the first 10 months of 2019, only 178 families were able to secure housing through CityFHEPS vouchers, a tiny fraction of the monthly average of 4,118 eligible families. See Gross, Courtney, “NY1 Investigation: Housing Vouchers for Homeless People Routinely Denied By Landlords,” NY1 Spectrum News, January 27, 2021; Coalition for the Homeless, “Why Are So Many People Homeless?”

[12] Housing advocates have consistently argued that the roots of “modern homelessness” can be traced back to dramatic changes in New York City’s rental housing stock, particularly the availability of “deeply affordable” single-occupancy units. During the early twentieth century, single-room housing (including residential hotels and single-room occupancy units, better known as SROs) played an essential role in providing low-cost housing for impoverished single adults, childless couples, and even families. In the decades after World War II, single-room housing continued to be a vital and relatively plentiful source of affordable housing in the city, but by the mid-1950s, increasing zoning regulation essentially prohibited the construction and/or conversion of new single-room housing. In the 1970s, the decline of the single-room housing stock accelerated because of urban renewal, demolition, and gentrification. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, the number of single-room units fell from approximately 129,000 in 1960 to just 25,000 in 1978, a drop largely attributed to changes in property tax policy that incentivized developers to convert single-room housing to higher-cost rental housing, cooperatives, or condominiums. By the early 1980s, SROs had already become the “housing of last resort” for poor single adults, many of whom were disabled, elderly, experiencing substance abuse, or formerly incarcerated. The decline of single-room housing persisted through the 1990s, with the largest reductions among units in commercial hotels and rooming houses. See Stein, Samuel, “Assessing De Blasio’s Housing Legacy,” Community Service Society, February 2021, p. 2; Sullivan, Brian J., and Jonathan Burke, “Single-Room Occupancy Housing in New York City: The Origins and Dimensions of a Crisis.” CUNY Law Review, vol. 17, no. 1, Winter 2013, pp. 113-144. Coalition for the Homeless, “Why Are So Many People Homeless?”

[13] Under Republican President Ronald Reagan, the Housing and Urban Development budget was slashed by 80%, a massive cut that was never fully reinstated. Additionally, since the 1975 fiscal crisis, several crucial aspects of urban policy have been controlled at the state rather than the city level in New York, including the powers of taxation (except the general property tax rate) and the power to limit private rents. Such built-in controls not only contribute to the limiting of state/city funds available for affordable housing programs, but denies the city home rule over rent control, rent stabilization, or other programs meant to regulate the private housing market. Amidst rising privatization and devolution, this state control has increasingly translated into more market-based solutions that often discriminate against low-income tenants and unhoused populations of color. For more on state and federal housing funding see Stein, Samuel,”Assessing De Blasio’s Housing Legacy,” Community Service Society, February 2021.

[14] Advocates have noted that severe cutbacks in federal, state, and city government housing investments and assistance have greatly contributed to the rise of New York’s shelter population.For most of the twentieth century, federal and state funds enabled the production, regulation, and direct assistance provided to low-income households. However, since the late 1970, these funds started decreasing, as federal, state, and city governments substantially abandoned their traditional role in financing the development of new housing, regulating rents, and providing housing assistance for the poorest households/individuals. The most dramatic cuts came from the Republican Reagan administration, which slashed federal funding for low-income housing assistance, leading to 40% fewer new housing vouchers provided annually by the early 1990s. At the same time, the state government also significantly reduced its role in assisting with affordable housing construction costs and providing social services such as housing allowances for low-income New Yorkers. For more on government devolution and disinvestment see Rubin, Beth A. , et al., “Unhousing the Urban Poor: The Reagan Legacy,” Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, vol. 19, no. 1, March 1992, pp. 111-148; Coalition for the Homeless, “Why Are So Many People Homeless?”

[15] See Metraux, Stephen, et al.,“Employment and Earnings Trajectories During Two Decades Among Adults in New York City Homeless Shelters.” Cityscape, vol. 20, no. 2, 2018, p. 173.

[16] Id., p. 194.

[17] Administrative statistics and independent studies on New York City family homelessness have identified the lack of affordable housing at the lowest income levels to be among the top drivers of this phenomenon. In 2014, the vacancy rate for the city’s rental housing inventory was 3.45%, but for low-rent units, it was just 1.8%. Such a significant dearth of available housing at the lowest end of the income scale has also increased overcrowding and high rental turnover. An estimated 73% of low-income households in New York City were severely rent-burdened in 2014 (paying more than half of their income for rent), compared with 71% in 2006. Among households with moderate incomes, the proportion of households with severe rent burdens increased from 37% in 2006 to 45% in 2014. Meanwhile, severe crowding among all renters rose 44.8% between 2005 and 2013. See Routhier, Giselle, “Family Homelessness in NYC

City and State Must Meet Unprecedented Scale of Crisis with Proven Solutions,” Coalition for the Homeless, January 2017. 

[18] For more on how “consensus politics” frameworks have been increasingly used by political historians and others to cut through party politics and crisis-centric explanations regarding issues like immigration restriction, mass incarceration, militarization, and finance capitalism see Cebul, Brent, Lily Geismer, et al., Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century (2019); Schulman, Bruce J., “Post-1968 U.S. History: Neo-Consensus History for the Age of Polarization,” Reviews in American History, vol. 47, no. 3, 2019, pp. 479-499.

[19] See Schmidt Camacho, Alicia, “Hailing the Twelve Million: U.S. Immigration Policy, Deportation, and the Imaginary of Lawful Violence,” Social Text, vol. 28 no. 4 (105), p. 5.

[20] For more on the distribution of undocumented labor see Milkman, Ruth, Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat (2020).

[21] See Minian, Ana, Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration (2018), p. 3.

[22] Id., p. 4.

[23] Id., p. 5.

[24] For more on employer sanctions see Coleman, Sarah, The Walls Within: The Politics of Immigration In Modern America (2021), p. 61-104.

[25] For more on the discriminatory effects of employer sanctions see Bacon, David and Bill Ong Hing, “The Rise and Fall of Employer Sanctions,”  in Governing Immigration Through Crime: A Reader (2013).

[26] For more on the erosion of Mexican circular migration see Minian, Ana, Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration (2018).

[27] Activist-led litigation in lower federal courts resulted in expanded protections and rights for Central American migrants, whose asylum claims were disproportionately rejected in the 1980s and 1990s. The most famous example of this is the American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh case. In the mid 1980s, at the height of the Sanctuary Movement, attorneys sued on behalf of churches and asylum seekers, leading to a settlement in California federal court mandating that the INS provide hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans with new asylum hearings “not influenced by foreign policy and immigration enforcement considerations.” For more on the ABC case and the disproportionate rejection of Central American asylum claims see Bon Tempo, Carl J., “Human Rights for All: The Recent History of Immigration and Human Rights in the United States” and Schacher, Yael, “Misreading History: The Supreme Court and the Thwarting of the U.S. Asylum System since the 1980s” in Whose America?: U.S. Immigration Policy Since 1980 (2023).

[28] The U.S. has a much longer history of expedited removal and “voluntary” departures. Historian Adam Goodman found that more than 90% of all U.S. migrant expulsions since the late nineteenth century have occurred via an administrative process euphemistically referred to as “voluntary departure.” Voluntary departures have typically occurred after an agent apprehended someone, coerced the person into agreeing to leave, and then physically removed the individual from the country soon thereafter or confirmed their departure within a set period of time. Goodman has noted the measure’s similarities to plea bargains, particularly how immigration authorities have presented this expedited removal as “the best of all the bad options facing people who have been apprehended.” The historian also highlights the concerted fear campaigns waged by local, state, and federal officials against unsanctioned migrants, causing many to “self-deport,” or “pick up and leave” without ever coming into contact with an immigration official. See Goodman, Adam, The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (2020), p. 1, 4-5.

[29] See Schacher, Yael, “Misreading History: The Supreme Court and the Thwarting of the U.S. Asylum System since the 1980s,” in Whose America?: U.s. Immigration Policy Since 1980 (2023), p. 219-220.

[30] See García, María Cristina, State of Disaster: The Failure of U.s. Migration Policy In an Age of Climate Change (2022), p. 16.

[31] For more on the racial politics of immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries see Jacobson, Matthew Frye, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (1998).

[32] See Ngai, Mae M., Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004), p. 227.

[33] Id., p. 57.

[34] For more on postwar Latinx and other immigrant communities in the Northeast see Barber, Llana, Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis In Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945-2000 (2017); Amezcua, Mike, Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification (2023); Sandoval-Strausz, A. K. Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City (2019).

[35] See Foner, Nancy, One Out of Three: Immigrant New York In the Twenty-first Century (2013).

Martha Guerrero

Martha Guerrero is a doctoral student in History at Yale University. Her research broadly focuses on U.S. immigration restriction in the twentieth century. Guerrero is particularly invested in examining how federal policy since the late 1960s has disproportionately impacted Latin American and Caribbean low-wage unauthorized workers and asylum seekers, a research agenda sparked by her time as an undergraduate research fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. At Yale, she has broadened her understanding of the stakes of immigration federal reform, particularly through her work as a graduate fellow for the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (RITM), Elizabeth Hinton and Beverly Gage’s Workshop in Modern U.S. History, and Prof. Hinton’s Challenging Racism in the Law Clinic. Beyond Yale, Guerrero has strived to bridge past and present when it comes to the history of immigration. Besides publishing several public-facing pieces on immigration, Guerrero has assisted The Atlantic immigration correspondent Caitlin Dickerson with research on the long-term effects of deportation. This broader interest in connecting academic research and investigative journalism stems from Guerrero’s time at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. While completing the M.S. program under the sponsorship of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize Scholarship and the Jack R. Howard Fellowship in International Journalism, she reported on New York’s unauthorized migrant workers and their servicing of various consumer industries. Her reporting on the labor organizing of migrant app delivery workers was shortlisted for Columbia’s Louis Winnick Prize in 2021.

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