COBBLE HILL, Brooklyn (PIX11) — The City of New York is obligated to provide shelter to anyone who seeks it, at least for now. City lawyers have now filed a request with a judge to end the right to shelter. That request is the first step in a long process to have the law suspended. That change, say city lawyers, is necessary, but advocates for the homeless and migrants say it would be a disaster. Some homeless migrants agree.
El Mortar Hayih is seeking asylum, after fleeing from his native Mauritania in West Africa. On Wednesday, he and a group of fellow Mauritanian migrants were drinking tea under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, around the corner from a shelter where they stay at night.
“Thank you for New York City,” Hayih said. “Thank you for people of New York for the giveness and the helpness. We appreciate the good.”
He apologized for his broken English and said that without a guaranteed right to the shelter facilities on Hall Street, he and his fellow migrants would be hard-pressed to survive.
However, for their part, Mayor Eric Adams and the New York City Law Department said that the city is hard-pressed to provide for everyone seeking shelter, particularly since more than 122,000 migrants have come to New York City since 2023, according to them.
The mayor also said, in person, at a Tuesday news conference, that the need to suspend the right-to-shelter requirement, adopted into law through a 1981 consent decree, “is a crisis, a humanitarian crisis.”
“Our legal team is going to play that out,” he continued, “turning in a letter to a judge, and they’re going to play that out.”
Specifics of the city’s request include ending a requirement to help individuals seeking shelter, as opposed to families, and only when the number of people seeking shelter grows by 50% over a certain period of time, as it has during the migrant crisis.
However, some advocates for the homeless and migrants say that any change could threaten the well-being of all people in need of shelter.
“If they’re going to go so far as to say that there should be no right to shelter for single adults,” said Joshua Goldfein, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society specializing in homelessness issues, “as far as City Hall is concerned, everything is on the table.”
Goldfein went on to say, in a Wednesday morning online news conference, that a change to the shelter law would spell disaster for the whole city.
“What is the alternative if we do not have a right to shelter?” Goldfein asked, rhetorically. “People are now living in the streets and subways. Is that the outcome that [the city’s lawyers] want? That would be the result if they were to prevail here.”
Agreeing with him were the migrants who congregated underneath the BQE. El Mortar Hayih said in Arabic how he feels, and translated it into English through a smartphone app.
“They will be exposed to homelessness,” he said. “I think that tragedy will happen.”
Both sides — the New York City Law Department and Legal Aid — have their next filings in the case on Oct. 18.