Mayor Eric Adams on Wednesday said New York City’s shelter system is “nearing its breaking point” and that the city needs to reassess how it accommodates those seeking emergency shelter.

“In this new and unforeseen reality, where we expect thousands more to arrive every week going forward, the city’s system is nearing its breaking point,” Adams said in a statement. “As a result, the city’s prior practices, which never contemplated the busing of thousands of people into New York City, must be reassessed.”

New York City is among the few cities in the country with a right-to-shelter law, a progressive landmark ruling won by activists in 1979 that seeks to ensure that anyone in need of a bed in a shelter receives one.

Asked if the mayor was referring to the right-to-shelter law, Fabien Levy, the mayor’s press secretary, said, "Every New Yorker has a right to shelter. We are not disputing that."

But he also said, “No city official, advocate, or court could have contemplated the unprecedented crisis we’re seeing" and that "the whole system needs to be reassessed." He did not provide specific details or a timeline.

The Adams administration has twice failed to comply with the law in recent months amid the arrival of thousands of asylum throughout the spring and summer, many of whom are being bused to New York City from southern states with hard-line immigration policies, testing New York City’s designation as a sanctuary city.

But for the right to shelter, NYC would have the same level of street homelessness as California, where homeless encampments are ubiquitous.
Rep. Ritchie Torres

The mayor’s statement was prompted by questions from news outlets, which reported that the city had failed to provide emergency shelter to dozens of homeless men on Monday night. They instead slept on the floor and benches inside a Manhattan intake center, according to advocacy groups, who threatened to sue the city earlier in the day.

"While we understand and appreciate the demands that the city faces, the law is clear: Anyone in need of shelter, including asylum seekers, is entitled to such in New York City. This principle has been settled for decades, and is not subject to unilateral tinkering by a new administration," the Legal Aid Society said in a statement Wednesday evening.

The organization added that the city "has added resources to the system to help avoid a repeat of what transpired" on Monday night.

Adams’ statement did not address whether the city did in fact break its own legal mandate.

Levy did not immediately respond to a request to clarify whether Adams meant the city needed to review the right-to-shelter law, which is also a court-ordered mandate.

But Norman Siegel, a civil liberties lawyer, said he did not read the mayor’s statement as meaning he would contemplate undoing or changing the right-to-shelter law in New York.

“The law is the law and New York provides the right to shelter for all people,” Siegel said.

Instead, he said he believed the administration wanted to “reassess” how they are handling the current crisis brought on by the influx of migrants.

Siegel is a longtime friend of Adams who represented him when he was an NYPD officer. With the support of the mayor, he is leading a program that has been trying to find ways to improve street homeless outreach.

The landmark 1979 court decision has been a foundation for several other homelessness policies, including a separate 2008 landmark case requiring that New York City legally provide shelter to all families with children.

This story has been updated to include additional comment from Fabien Levy, the mayor's press secretary, and the Legal Aid Society.