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Notes and Renderings

Ensuring the right to rest one’s weary head

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Steven Banks ’81, attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society, may have developed a new appreciation for Charles Dickens’s Bleak House after brokering a deal with New York City to shelter the homeless. But unlike the long-running fictional case Jarndyce and Jarndyce, this 25-year legal battle had a hopeful ending.

In 1983 the Legal Aid Society filed the primary lawsuit in the matter, McCain v. Koch, to obtain better shelter for families. Subsequent lawsuits concerned questions of shelter eligibility and services for the homeless. By 2008, more than 40 court orders were in play. In an attempt to end the quarter-century legal conflict, the city made reforming the shelter system a top priority.

The settlement between the Legal Aid Society and New York City explicitly guarantees the right to shelter and formalizes qualifying standards for shelter, assisting individuals with obtaining necessary documents and helping them find somewhere to go in the event that shelter is denied.

In a September 2008 news conference with Mayor Michael Bloomberg at City Hall, Banks said the hard-won development made this “a historic day for homeless children and their families,” adding, “An enforceable right to shelter for homeless children and their families is now permanent, no matter what administration is in office, no matter who is mayor.”

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