Yvonne McCain, the Courageous Homeless Mother Who Fought For Homeless Families, Dies at 63

Yvonne McCain, the named plaintiff in The Legal Aid Society's litigation on behalf of homeless families which led to groundbreaking rights for homeless families, passed away on October 29. The McCain litigation, led by Steven Banks, the Society's Attorney-in-Chief, resulted in landmark right to shelter rulings during four City Administrations and finally settled after 25 years in 2008 with a final judgment establishing a permanent right to shelter for homeless families. At the time of the settlement, Ms. McCain told Banks: “This is what we went to court for so many years ago. I am glad I lived to see this.”

For her obituary, Banks told The New York Times, “The import of the settlement, and in a sense Ms. McCain’s life, is that no matter who the mayor is now or in the future, tens of thousands of homeless children and their families are entitled to a roof over their heads."

The New York Times
Yvonne McCain, Plaintiff in Suit on Shelter for Homeless Families, Dies at 63
By Dennis Hevesi
Published: November 2, 2011

Yvonne McCain, a once-homeless mother of four whose years of living in a fetid, ramshackle welfare hotel in Midtown Manhattan led to a landmark court ruling requiring the city to provide decent shelter for homeless families, died Saturday in her rent-subsidized, middle-income apartment on Staten Island. She was 63.

The cause was cancer, her daughter Tameika McCain said.

Ms. McCain was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit originally called McCain v. Koch. Except for hers, the names on the class-action suit changed three times as new mayors took office. The case, filed in 1983, was finally settled by the city and the Legal Aid Society in 2008.

But the primary issue was settled in 1986, when the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled that New York City could not deny emergency shelter for homeless families with children. Previous cases had established the right of single homeless men and women to shelter. In that ruling, the appellate court said that thousands of children were subject “to inevitable emotional scarring because of the failure of city and state officials to provide emergency shelter.”

Nearly 40 more proceedings would wind through trial and appeals courts over the next 22 years, as both sides wrestled over issues like whether the city was meeting basic standards of habitability. When the final settlement was reached, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said it marked “the beginning of a new era” in which “we can all move forward in our shared commitment to effectively meet the needs of homeless families.”

On Monday, Steven Banks, the chief lawyer of the Legal Aid Society, who had led the McCain case, said, “The import of the settlement, and in a sense Ms. McCain’s life, is that no matter who the mayor is now or in the future, tens of thousands of homeless children and their families are entitled to a roof over their heads.”

That was certainly not always so for Ms. McCain.

She and her children were evicted from their Brooklyn apartment in 1982 after she withheld rent because her landlord refused to make repairs. They ended up in a filthy, dilapidated hotel in Herald Square.

“They put us in a room on the 11th floor,” she said in 1992, adding that both sides of the mattresses were stained with urine. “I remember calling my mother and asking if she could bring me newspapers to put over the mattresses. I stayed up worrying that the kids didn’t climb out the windows, because there were no bars.”

Ms. McCain, a battered woman, spent four years in that hotel. As the case crawled through the courts, she bounced from shelter to city-supported apartment and back. Her estranged husband once found her and broke her nose.

In 1996 she and the children moved into the subsidized two-bedroom apartment on Staten Island, where she was living when she died.

“My mom loved this apartment,” Tameika McCain said. “She said she was never going to leave it, never going to be homeless again.”

Ms. McCain worked as a nurse’s aide and, in 2005, received an associate’s degree in human services from the Borough of Manhattan Community College. In recent years she worked in the college’s health service office.

Born in Harlem on Oct. 25, 1948, Ms. McCain was the only child of Lillie McCain and John Henry Bonds. Besides her daughter Tameika, she is survived by another daughter, Tyeast Fullerton; four sons, Darryl Jones, Phillip McCain, Robert McCain and Jonathan McCain; 19 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

When the lawsuit was first filed, Ms. McCain recalled in 2003, “I thought we were going to get new mattresses and guardrails on the windows and that’s it. I never imagined that this suit would end up being so helpful to so many people.”

A Homeless Woman’s Victory, After a 25-Year Fight
Friday, Semptember 19, 2008
The New York Times
By Leslie Kaufman

Steven Banks, attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society, called Yvonne McCain on Tuesday night to tell her that he was finally settling the lawsuit for homeless families that he had brought in her name 25 years ago.

Back then, Mr. Banks was a just a young staff lawyer, and Ms. McCain, a mother of four young children, was a victim of domestic violence, beaten so badly that she was hospitalized and so frightened that she had nowhere to go.

They stayed in touch over the years, as the lawsuit, originally titled McCain v. Koch, wound its way up the court system and back, resulting in dozens of court orders prescribing how families seeking shelter should be treated and giving Legal Aid remarkable oversight of the city’s Department of Homeless Services.

At a recent dinner, Ms. McCain offered a testimonial to Mr. Banks, saying he had “saved her life.” Indeed, she had gone to college, survived breast cancer and moved from a flophouse in Herald Square to a stable, subsidized apartment on Staten Island, as Anthony DePalma wrote the last time Ms. McCain’s lawsuit made big news, in 2003.

But when Mr. Banks reached Ms. McCain with the most recent news, that the lawsuit had been settled once and for all, she was tired and groggy. She said she was sick again, a cancer relapse. Mr. Banks told her that the city had agreed to a permanent order establishing a right to shelter for homeless families with children.

Ms. McCain, he said, told him: “This is what we went to court for so many years ago. I am glad I lived to see this.”