Legal Aid Memory Lane: How New York’s “Right to Shelter” Policy Came to Be

A nice, brief story on the public radio program “Marketplace Weekend” about a Big Law lawyer500px-I_Love_New_York.svg who made big change via a late-1970s pro bono case:

“As New Yorkers face rising rents and stagnant wages, the city has seen a spike in homelessness. Around 60,000 New Yorkers currently live in municipal shelters. They are guaranteed a “Right to Shelter” that stems from an unprecedented 35-year-old lawsuit.

In 1979, Robert Hayes, a 26-year-old newly minted securities and anti-trust litigator with the white-shoe firm of Sullivan & Cromwell brought a class-action lawsuit on behalf of homeless New Yorkers. Hayes was a lawyer who had retained a habit from his days as a young journalist: He chatted with people he met on the street…

In December 1979, with winter looming, a judge found for Hayes and ordered the city to make shelters available. To Hayes, it was a win with an asterisk. He knew that many of the city shelters were crowded, dirty and violent. He went back to court, calling witnesses who could testify to the inhumane conditions of the city shelters. The testimony of a young Catholic worker named David Beseda was so powerful, Hayes and Hopper remembered, that once the judge had heard it, they were certain the case had been won.

“That afternoon, the city freaked out and came to the bargaining table, and we started negotiating a consent decree,” Hayes said.

The win affirmed the Right to Shelter. The decree came too late for the plaintiff, Robert Callahan. His died sleeping on the streets in lower Manhattan before it was signed. His death, said Hayes, was attributed to natural causes.

Hayes went on to co-found the Coalition for the Homeless with Hopper and Ellen Baxter. He knows Callahan v. Carey was a big win, but said he also felt a sense of failure. Youthful optimism had convinced him he’d see the end of homelessness, but he said the 60,000 New Yorkers currently living in shelters prove he came up short.

 

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