As New York City scrambles to shelter asylum-seekers through its own facilities and network of nonprofits and faith-based organizations, recent efforts by the Adams administration to modify the city’s “right-to-shelter” mandate has shifted the focus away from traditional homeless services, according to speakers at the annual Upstream Symposium hosted by HELP USA.
Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom, speaking at the event held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan Wednesday, said the city has received more than 173,900 migrants, with 60% (more than 104,000) moving to other localities to find housing. The shelter system currently has 122,300 in its care – a population that combines both asylum-seekers and traditionally homeless populations. That, according to Williams-Isom, makes one thing clear: the city’s shelter infrastructure and the Callahan Consent Decree, or “right-to-shelter” mandate, were not prepared to handle the pressure of a migrant influx of such magnitude.
“I don't think 40 years ago, anyone could have imagined that we would have this many people coming to our shores and seeking shelter. And we would literally have no additional resources, no additional planning, and no time to prepare,” she told attendees at the event sponsored by Help USA, in partnership with City & State. “So it's important to talk about that in the context of this conversation today, in terms of the shelter system and its infrastructure,” said Williams-Isom.
With a lack of robust funding from the federal government, Williams-Isom called the situation a humanitarian crisis made worse by Texas Governor’s Greg Abbott’s role in busing migrants like “political pieces on a gameboard.”
“The bottom line is that this is a national problem and requires a national response,” Williams-Isom stressed. “The whole world is literally looking at us. We don't shy away from issues facing the city, but we also have to be pragmatic and transparent here.”
One pragmatic solution is the city’s efforts to modify its obligations under the Callahan Consent Decree, more commonly known as the “right-to-shelter”mandate – which Kim Hopper, professor of clinical, sociomedical sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and keynote speaker at the event, characterized as a “baseline of survival.”
“In practice, the right to shelter is an unlovely beast, makeshift, provisional at times, reluctant,” he told attendees. “We all agree, it is no solution to homelessness. At best, it’s an emergency respite, a patchwork holding action, that by one recent estimate has provided shelter to over a million New Yorkers since its inception,” said Hopper.
The city seeks to change aspects of the mandate through “temporary modifications,” said Molly Wasow Park, commissioner of the Department of Social Services, who sat on a panel at the symposium.
“We are having conversations about the rules and environment that we live in. But we're talking about temporary modifications. So we're not looking to end our obligation to provide temporary housing,” Park said in her remarks, joking that lawyers would be upset because of her participation at the event,alluding to a lawsuit seeking the changes that remains in court.
Park highlighted the differences in need among traditionally homeless populations and incoming migrants, ultimately qualifying the current crisis as an immigration issue, separate from traditional homelessness.
“We're talking about low-income households who need a stable place to stay. But the other kinds of issues that people are facing are very, very different. For our more traditional clients experiencing homelessness, there is a checklist. That checklist doesn't apply to asylum seekers,” she said in her remarks. It's about the pace of change. It's about the volume. It's about the needs of the clients.”
Park pointed to the downsides to the “right to shelter” mandate, from backlash from communities to high expenses, leading to the need for affordable housing initiatives to follow shelter occupancy.
“It's messy. It's also expensive. It is hugely politically unpopular,” she said.
Park detailed that when the city goes about setting up a shelter, “it actually gives a fair amount of latitude for the agency to innovate on program housing. She went on to describe how her agency has made innovations in the housing space. “CITYFEPS, our city funded rental voucher, can now be used anywhere in New York state,” she said. “And then we have the affordable housing services contract, more colloquially known as “mass release,” to allow nonprofits to lease permanent housing for clients in the shelter system.”
However, Joshua Goldfein, staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society who also participated in the syposium, noted the city’s previous flexibility in handling mass population influxes and emergency situations. Goldfein warned of the consequences of Mayor Eric Adams’ attempts to circumvent the right to shelter, saying it would lead to mass displacements – affecting more than incoming migrants.
“The mayor's request to the court, which is still pending, is to give the city the authority to deny shelter to most New Yorkers, including low wage workers, people who are receiving federal disability benefits. People who have been here for decades, who never have any experience of any other place, who do not have status, he told attendees “And all those people would be ineligible if the city's request to the court were granted. Now, again, we are in a mediation process. We are hopeful that this will be resolved. And we are focused on serving everybody.”
Other panelists like Linda Gibbs, principal at Bloomberg Associates, recommended a right to shelter mandate “that doesn't have the same rigidity.” “I think that we would be doing a better job and be more effective, flexible and quick in our responses, if we didn't have the same constraints as what's happening,” she said. Echoing Gibbs, Achilles Kallergis, director of the Zolberg Institute Project on Cities and Migrants of The New School, reminded attendees that New York is a “city of immigrants.” Akin to mass European migrations of the 1900s, Kallergis stressed a shift in the way we view present urban policies.
“Good urban policy is good migrant policy. A lot of the people who are coming here don't want to stay in the shelter system,” said Kallergis. “Think of migration as a generational sacrifice that a lot of people are making – coming here, knowing very well that it's going to be extremely difficult, but with the idea that the next generation is going to be able to do better. We need to question, what is our end goal? What is our objective?”
Kallergis urged leaders to take risks by effectively incorporating migrants into New York’s economy. “You have very bold moves that New York City did historically, in order to address population pressures. I think we need to start thinking in that sense and thinking boldly, not trying to deal with a migration crisis by using the homeless shelter system only, but thinking about how we move from emergency response,” he said in his remarks.
While Park remained hopeful that the migrant crisis will become a “catalyst for true, immigration reform,” she touched on challenges that lie ahead.
“This is an immigration issue, and a lot of those people are going to be successful […] And then there's going to be a number of people who aren't,” she said. “People who are undocumented immigrants have historically been very long-term stayers in the (Department of Homeless Services) shelter system. While we are talking about the current population as asylum seekers, it is different to be an undocumented immigrant than it is to be an asylum seeker.”
We do need to recognize and plan for the fact that we are going to end up with a probably non-trivial number of undocumented immigrants who are going to need long term assistance from the city,” Park added.