New York's mayor asked a judge on Tuesday to let the city suspend its long-standing "right to shelter" obligation, saying officials are no longer able to house every homeless person because of the arrival of tens of thousands of international migrants.
The right to shelter has been in place for more than four decades in New York, after a court in 1981 required the city to provide temporary housing for every homeless person who asks for it. Other big U.S. cities don't have such a rule.
But with the arrival of 70,000 asylum-seekers since last spring, many of whom crossed into the U.S. from Mexico, the city has been challenged to find room for everyone in need of a temporary roof and bed.
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"It is in the best interest of everyone, including those seeking to come to the United States, to be upfront that New York City cannot single-handedly provide care to everyone crossing our border," Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement.
"Being dishonest about this will only result in our system collapsing, and we need our government partners to know the truth and do their share," said the mayor, a Democrat.
Adams said he was not seeking to permanently end the right to shelter but was seeking "clarity from the court."
The proposal was condemned by some housing advocates, who said it could result in more people living outdoors.
Joe Loonam, housing campaign coordinator for the advocacy organization VOCAL-NY, said Adams wants "to end the right to shelter that has prevented New York City from following in the footsteps of places like L.A. and San Francisco where thousands of people are in horrendous conditions out on the street."
New York's shelter system is now filled to record levels. The city says it is currently providing housing for 93,000 people. In recent months it has rented out entire hotels to house the influx of migrants, at great cost. It has also put cots in schools, and temporarily housed people in tents, a cruise ship terminal and a former police academy building.
In a letter to the deputy chief administrative judge for New York City Courts, the city's lawyers asked for a change in the mandate that would allow officials to suspend the right to shelter when the Department of Homeless Services lacks the resources to house everyone safely.
Adams has sought financial help from the state and federal government and has been critical of President Joe Biden's administration for not providing funding to care for migrants.
In an appearance on the CBS News program "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Adams said the White House offer of $30 million is insufficient.
"We've spent over a billion dollars," the mayor said. "We're projected to spend close to $4.3 billion, if not more. This estimate was based on a number of migrants coming to the city, and those numbers have clearly increased."
In recent weeks, the city has begun paying to house some asylum-seekers at hotels in counties north of the city, but that action has stoked anger and accusations that the city was dumping its problems on other communities.
In the initial months of the crisis, Adams heralded the right to shelter mandate as an emblem of his city's empathy toward asylum-seekers. Many of the first arrivals were bused to New York by the governors of Republican-led border states including Texas and Arizona who were trying to bring attention to the border crisis. The governors also targeted Washington, D.C., another city with a Democratic mayor.
Catherine Trapani, executive director of Homeless Services United, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing, urged the city to alleviate the shelter crisis by increasing rental assistance programs.
"There are alternatives," she said. "The mayor does not need to take this drastic step to limit what should be a fundamental right."
In a joint statement, the Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society said they both "vigorously oppose" the mayor's request.
"New Yorkers do not want to see anyone, including asylum-seekers, relegated to the streets," the statement said.