City Has Run Out of Shelter Space for Homeless Men and Women, Says Steven Banks, Legal Aid's Chief Attorney

The Legal Aid Society and its client, the Coalition for the Homeless, filed an enforcement motion yesterday in New York County Supreme Court, charging that the City has violated the 1981 consent decree governing the right to shelter for homeless men and women by failing to provide adequate shelter beds.

"Over the past 10 weeks we have made every effort to avoid going to court but the situation has gone from bad to worse, and with the onset of winter there is a real risk that vulnerable homeless women and homeless men will suffer serious injury and even death on the streets of the City when they are denied lawful shelter in violation of the long-standing legal right to shelter,” said Steve Banks, Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society.

The adult shelter system is over 100 percent capacity and homeless men are forced to wait throughout the night without any shelter and homeless women are being bused in the middle of the night to night-only dormitory to sleep between the hours of 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. New York City shelters are so full that homeless men and women have been left to sleep on benches, floors and dining room tables over the last three months. In addition to Banks, Joshua Goldfein, a staff attorney in the Society's Homeless Rights Project, is handling the case. The law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP provided pro-bono counsel to the plaintiffs.

The suit charges that "although the demand for shelter has been growing predictably for over a year, the City has made insufficient preparations to meet the current need. As a result, the City is unable to provide lawful shelter to homeless women and men who need it and cannot even meet the minimum standards established by Callahan (the consent decree). Repeatedly over the last three months, a number of homeless New Yorkers have received no bed at all after waiting into the early morning hours.”

“Homeless New Yorkers desperately need more shelter beds,” said Mary Brosnahan, Executive Director of the Coalition for the Homeless.

The suit details City data showing that the shelter system reached 100% capacity on the night of September 30th and then repeatedly reached capacity throughout October, November and December and charges that the city has taken inadequate measures to prepare for a rapidly increasing homeless population. Instead, in June, the City closed the 150 bed Peter Young shelter for homeless men and women and failed to heed a letter from Legal Aid on October 6th warning of the city’s inability to handle the influx of new homeless men and women.

Read the article on The New York Times website.


The New York Times
December 10, 2009
Shortage of Beds for Homeless in City
By Julie Bosman

New York City shelters are so full that homeless men and women have been left to sleep on benches, floors and dining room tables over the last three months, violating a landmark 1981 agreement, Legal Aid lawyers charged in court papers on Wednesday.

The motion by the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless also alleges that homeless women have been transported on buses after midnight to a shelter in East New York, Brooklyn, where they have been allowed to sleep for less than five hours before being required to leave again in the morning.

The lawyers said the conditions violated a consent decree from 1981, in which the city agreed to provide clean and safe shelter, including beds and showers, to homeless men and women who sought it. The motion, filed in Supreme Court in Manhattan, requests a judge to enforce the 1981 decree by requiring the city to come up with more beds.

Steven Banks, the attorney in chief for the Legal Aid Society, said that the city had effectively run out of shelter.

“The extreme situation now is reminiscent of problems that we haven’t seen in years,” Mr. Banks said. “It’s a failure to plan, and it’s having dire consequences for vulnerable women and vulnerable men.”

Robert V. Hess, the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, called the motion “alarmist” and said that the people cited by the motion had actually refused beds or arrived at the shelters past 2 a.m., when it was too late to receive a bed.

The system has not yet exceeded capacity, though it is close, Mr. Hess said. Capacity in the adult shelter system was at 99.6 percent on Dec. 8.

“We’ve seen an uptick in demand, so our system, as you might expect, is a little tight,” he said. “We’re confident that we’ll continue to be able to meet demand and meet our obligations throughout the winter.”

Mr. Hess said that the description of homeless women being bused to a night-only shelter was “potentially correct,” but he said many of the women had missed curfew at the shelter where they were originally assigned.

“Am I completely comfortable with that? No,” he said. “On the other hand, people made a choice not to come in by curfew.”

Shelter providers and advocates for the homeless have been watching nervously as more people have sought shelter in the last several months, a phenomenon that city officials say is the result of the economic downturn.

According to the city’s daily homeless census, there were 6,975 single adults — 4,934 men and 2,041 women — in shelters on Tuesday, Dec. 8, the most recent data available. The count does not include military veterans in short-term housing; chronically homeless people who have entered the Safe Havens program; and the 30,698 people who were in short-term housing for homeless families.

Mr. Banks of Legal Aid, which has won several battles with the city over its handling of the homeless shelter system, said he did not take going back to court lightly, but that the city had been unresponsive to urging to increase the number of beds for single adults.

Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, said the group had been monitoring shelters closely and witnessed the strain on shelter capacity.

The 15-page motion filed on Wednesday describes scenes that the Coalition monitors say they witnessed in the last several months.

For instance, late at night on Sept. 29, at least 15 homeless men at two shelters the group visited had not received beds. Workers at one of the shelters said there were no more beds available, the motion said.

It also said that early on Oct. 9, at the city’s Bellevue shelter, 52 men slept in chairs or on the floor as they waited for shelter. Fourteen men were bused to shelters with beds, but 38 remained for the rest of the night.

On Oct. 21, 35 men and 4 women were waiting for beds late at night at three shelters inspected by the Coalition, the motion said. At one of the shelters, two women were seen sleeping on a dining room table.