City Settles Lawsuit Over Homeless Families
Updated, 1:09 p.m. | The Bloomberg administration has decided to settle a longstanding class-action lawsuit over homeless families’ access to shelter in New York City, ending costly litigation that has dragged on since May 1983, through four mayoral administrations. The settlement, which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced at a news conference this morning, comes as city officials acknowledge that the mayor’s plan to reduce homelessness by two-thirds by 2009 has fallen far short of it goals.
While the number of homeless single adults has fallen a bit, the number of homeless families has risen. There are about 9,000 homeless families, including about 14,000 children, sleeping in city shelters every night this month. City spending on homelessness prevention has risen, to $191.2 million in 2007 from $160.6 million in 2004, and spending on homeless shelters has grown to $603.5 million from $563.4 million, the city’s Independent Budget Office found in a study [pdf] last month.
The main lawsuit being settled, McCain v. Koch, was filed in 1983 by the Legal Aid Society to draw attention to the plight of homeless families, after similar lawsuits had been filed over the rights of homeless men and women. Those lawsuits had resulted in the establishment, unusual in the United States, of a right to shelter in New York City.
The McCain suit argued that the city had failed to provide adequate shelter or develop standards governing shelter for families. (The named plaintiff in the suit was Yvonne McCain, who was evicted from a Brooklyn apartment in 1982 after withholding rent to protest her landlord’s refusal to make repairs.)
Over the years, related lawsuits were filed arguing, like the McCain case, that homeless families were improperly denied shelter or even barred from applying for it; those lawsuits, too, are part of today’s settlement.
A court-appointed panel of special masters had urged an end to the litigation nearly three years ago. But the litigation resumed in 2005, after a two-year hiatus. The city moved in 2006 to dismiss the lawsuit, saying it had taken major steps to transform the system, but the case dragged. The settlement announced today occurred after talks between the city’s top lawyer, Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo, and Steven M. Banks, attorney in chief at the Legal Aid Society.
Under the settlement, the parties agreed a new case would be filed and, following a class action settlement hearing, all cases against the city and state, as well as the new one, would be dismissed. The city will regain full control and oversight of its family services system, “no longer having to enforce over 40 highly-detailed court orders or spend precious staff time and agency resources complying with or litigating these cases,” City Hall said in a statement.
The statement added:
As part of the settlement, the parties have agreed that New York City would continue its long-standing interpretation of state and local laws ensuring safe and decent emergency shelter for homeless families with children. The settlement also includes provisions that outline current agency standards and protocols for assessing shelter eligibility; under the terms of the agreement, these provisions sunset on Dec. 31, 2010, unless the agency were to be found in “systemic non-compliance” with its provisions in a separate successful litigation.
The mayor said in a statement:
Today marks the beginning of a new era – an era in which the need for court oversight is over and we can all move forward in our shared commitment to effectively meeting the needs of homeless families. The family shelter system of today focuses on prevention like never before, helps families find permanent housing like never before, and balances rights with responsibilities like never before. Today’s historic agreement not only recognizes the tremendous progress we’ve made over the past six and a half years, it frees us to make even more.
Mr. Banks, who worked on the litigation with the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, said in a statement:
Today is a historic day for homeless children and their families in this city. We have been able to reach a breakthrough settlement of 25 years of litigation that will benefit all the people of this City by ensuring that homeless families with children will be treated appropriately and in accordance with legal requirements to which we have all now agreed.
Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, the city’s leading advocacy group for the homeless, said in a statement:
We applaud today’s settlement of the McCain litigation. On the brink of open court testimony from mothers with children who have been relegated to sleeping on our sidewalks, in church basements, laundry mats, and other public spaces, the Bloomberg Administration has come to its senses and agreed to codify an enforceable Right to Shelter for families with vulnerable children.
Over four years have passed since the mayor announced his ambitious Five Year Plan to end homelessness, and the numbers of families with children in New York City shelters haves grown dramatically. Tonight, over 14,400 children are homeless, a 31 percent increase since Bloomberg took office. There are over 9,000 families in shelter tonight, fully twice the number the mayor had predicted in his plan.
In 2004, the City stopped giving homeless families priority for federally-funded Section-8 vouchers and proceeded to stumble through a series of replacement programs, including Housing Stability Plus (abandoned in 2007) and Work Advantage. As the numbers skyrocketed, the Bloomberg Administration began denying emergency shelter to re-applicant families in October 2007. This despite the City’s own data showing fully one-third of families who were ultimately found eligible for shelter were forced to re-apply more than once.
The combination of denying federal rental subsidies and closing the front door to the shelter system has been an unprecedented disaster for homeless families in NYC. Last month’s report from the Independent Budget Office underscored just how far the mayor has fallen in his ability to manage the homeless crisis.
We are very pleased that the Department of Homeless Services has agreed to begin to provide assistance to applicant families in gathering basic documents necessary to prove their homeless status, along with other safeguards for which the Coalition has long advocated. However these reforms must be coupled with a reinstatement for Section-8 priority for homeless families in order to bring the numbers down significantly.
Each morning our waiting room is filled with families in need of shelter, who have been turned away from the PATH center by DHS workers. It is our hope that the City will now stop hiding behind the fig leaf of litigation and start providing families with vulnerable children emergency shelter and long-term, stable rental assistance so they can begin to rebuild their lives.
Gov. David A. Paterson said in a statement:
The impact of this volatile and uncertain economy is that more New York families are vulnerable to financial hardship, potentially only a single crisis away from finding themselves in need of emergency shelter. This historic settlement restores and preserves the ability of the City of New York to provide vital services those families may require to rebuild their lives.
I would like to commend Mayor Bloomberg for leading this effort and the Legal Aid Society for its cooperation in bringing closure to this long-standing litigation. Due to the settlement, New York City’s most at-risk residents will greatly benefit in times of critical need.
David W. Chen and Leslie Kaufman contributed reporting.