Robert Hayes, 29, like many other white-collar New Yorkers on their way to work, was often approached by panhandlers. Unlike most people, Hayes, who held a $40,000-a-year position with the prestigious Wall Street law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, not only dug into his pocket but was moved to stop and listen and ask questions. “I assumed like most people that the homeless were on the street by choice,” he says. “But when I talked to these homeless people, almost everyone told me that the streets were actually safer—and less degrading—than the city’s public shelters.”
Intrigued, he decided to look for himself. At a succession of shelters, he saw hundreds of men packed into filthy dormitories. The more enterprising had dragged in sheets of cardboard to lay over bare bedsprings. Many used their shoes as pillows. Hayes, then 26, pressed city officials for reform but was ignored. So he began gathering evidence after work, and in October 1979 he filed suit on behalf of six homeless men. It was his first court appearance, and “I was scared to death,” he recalls. But on Christmas Eve a judge issued a landmark ruling ordering the city to provide shelter for all who needed it—some 36,000 men and women in New York. As litigation dragged on about the quality of the shelters, Hayes lost touch with three of his clients, and another died in the city streets. But he never flagged. In fact, in February he left his law firm to devote full time to the organization he had founded, Coalition for the Homeless.
Though there are now about 4,000 beds in city emergency shelters, Hayes, a Long Islander who graduated from Georgetown and New York University School of Law, isn’t satisfied: “What’s needed are more supportive, permanent residences” from which new lives can be launched. Hayes insists, “There’s nothing I’d rather do. It’s a privilege to be the voice for people who have been voiceless.”