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The Man Who Fought Homelessness and Won (Sort Of)

McCain would later describe her first night at the Martinique as “one of the worst nights of my life.” She found the mattresses burned, ripped and stained with urine on both sides, and the windows jammed open; the two rooms she had been assigned were on the 11th floor. “I stayed up all night crying,” she later recalled, “terrified that if I didn’t watch them, one of my children might fall out a window.” There was no heat or refrigeration and sometimes no running water. She put milk on the window ledge to keep it cold and hung a bag of food from a nail in the wall to protect it from mice and rats. She sponged the mattresses with disinfectant and, eventually, took in a stray cat to fight the rodents. Each morning, after accompanying her children on their commute to school in Brooklyn, McCain scoured newspaper listings and looked for affordable housing.

“At the time I didn’t altogether know what the Martinique was like,” Marcella Silverman, the Legal Aid lawyer who helped McCain find emergency housing, said. When she visited McCain’s room she felt that she must be looking at a violation of the law. Soon, lawyers from Legal Aid became regular visitors to hotels and city intake offices, looking for other families in similar circumstances — arbitrarily denied shelter, provided substandard emergency housing or given no notice of city decisions about their cases — who might be willing to join McCain in a class-action lawsuit demanding a right to shelter for families. “This was a practice case,” Silverman said. “We had to prove what the city’s practices were. And the only way to prove a practice is to put before the court more and more people suffering the same harm.”

The right-to-shelter cases built New York City’s shelter-and-services system in ways large and small. The city, essentially overnight, found itself with a legal obligation to house thousands of people and to provide minimum shelter standards that could be enforced by the court system. It tried to convert unused hospitals, schools and armories — buildings that were large, empty and publicly owned. “We just needed volume,” said Bonnie Stone, then an assistant deputy administrator at the Human Resources Administration. “Every day we were on the search for new places.” Shelters were often opened with little notice, under the cover of night.

A family shelter that was opened briefly in an unused Bronx jail had to be closed after inspectors hired by Legal Aid found lead paint. In other shelters, Legal Aid found violations of fire and safety regulations or hired inspectors who found dangerous levels of asbestos, allowing Banks to file motions that forced the city to find safer quarters. The city continually missed deadlines that he had persuaded the court to impose, and court orders mandating a narrow, legalistic solution to one problem could generate scores of others. With each violation, Banks returned to court, seeking enforcement. By the mid-1990s, he was responsible for enforcing the city’s compliance in the cases that Hayes brought as well, bringing every right-to-shelter claim under his purview.

Before long, city officials would make day-to-day decisions with an eye on the courtroom. “The system before asked essentially one contentious question: Are you eligible for shelter or not?” Linda Gibbs, then the D.H.S. commissioner, told reporters in 2004. “Now, instead of hiring investigators, we are hiring staffers with social-services backgrounds. We assume families that come to us have a problem, and we ask, ‘How can we help?’” Agency managers grew reluctant to analyze their own data, fearing that reports they produced internally would be subpoenaed by Legal Aid. A former D.H.S. commissioner told the public-policy scholar Thomas Main that when he was considering the job, a city lawyer asked him to be sure he really wanted it, “because you’re about to be named in over 70 lawsuits.”

Over the decades that he worked on the right to shelter, Banks came to know the system of shelters and services better than anyone else, in no small part because, directly or indirectly, it was built in response to what he persuaded the court to demand. By the time the McCain case was settled, in 2008, with a final judgment that permanently enshrined the right to shelter, a system that had barely served a few hundred people had become a city within the city, providing emergency housing for 35,000, and a body of law had been built block by block alongside it.

Thomas Crane, New York City’s chief of general litigation, estimates that in nearly four decades as a city lawyer, he has spent more time on homelessness litigation than on anything else. Crane said that “in the bad old days,” they were in court “every week or every other week, and when we weren’t in court, we were writing papers to address the motions that were being made,” he said. In one 18-month stretch, the city submitted more than 300,000 pages to court. “Steve knew what data was out there, and he’d want to get his hands on it,” Crane said. “And we had a lot of dirty laundry.” He added, “They were driving us crazy.”

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