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City of Immigrants

Bounced from Shelter to Shelter, a Family of Asylum Seekers Struggles to Stay New Yorkers

An interview with a family that never imagined themselves in New York City, and now have nowhere else to go.

The former Vybe Hotel on Flatbush Avenue, now a shelter housing immigrant families. (Hell Gate)

More than 150,000 asylum seekers and new immigrants have arrived in New York City in the last two years. As City government has struggled to find shelter for them all, Mayor Eric Adams has adopted policies designed to actively discourage people from coming hereforcing new immigrants to reapply for shelter every few months and limiting their access to resources like bathrooms and ID cards. His staff has even brainstormed ways to deny them shelter altogether. At the same time, Mayor Adams has pledged repeatedly that these tribulations will not disrupt immigrant children's ability to attend their schools. This week, Hell Gate sat down with one couple in Brooklyn with children in public school who have been bounced between shelters. Speaking in Spanish through a translator, they described their experience so far in New York City. 

Luis and María—not their real names—didn't know anyone in New York City. They didn't want to come here. They didn't even want to leave their home in Ecuador. But when Luis's small business became the target of an extortion racket, they realized they would not be safe staying in their home. They thought of fleeing to Chile, but worried that the gang extorting them would be able to track them down there. So they settled on the United States. 

Luis, 30, came first, in the fall of 2022. Upon arrival in New York, he was sent to a congregate shelter at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. Working with a family member, he borrowed money to pay for María and their two children to make the journey to join him. 

When the family was reunited, they went together to the Roosevelt Hotel on 45th Street, where new arrivals in New York City are assigned to temporary housing. There, the family was assigned to the former Vybe Hotel in Flatbush, which has been repurposed as a shelter for migrant families. 

The kids began school at PS 139 in Ditmas Park. Sofía, in second grade, was in a dual-language Spanish program. José attended pre-K in English."The kids really liked it," María said. "They made friends."

Luis was working non-stop, first as a day-laborer, picking up jobs in a Home Depot parking lot—construction, moving, cleaning. Then he got work in a factory processing fruit. He worked there four or five days a week and picked up day-labor jobs whenever he wasn't at the factory.

The shelter was a disappointment, Luis and María said. "We had been told that the people at the shelter could help us with our paperwork, and to get health insurance for our kids, but they wouldn't help with any of that," Luis said. 

Worse, food was in short supply at the Vybe. "They would set out the trays, but there weren't enough of them," Luis said. "If you were one of the first 30 people, you might get some, but after that, they ran out. That meant that the kids didn't get food sometimes. We would ask the staff, and they would say 'There's no more.'" 

People staying at the Vybe were suspicious: They could see the pallets of prepared food being delivered to the shelter, but it didn't seem to be making its way to the people who lived there. Rumors swirled. Some claimed to have seen a room full of undistributed food. "The guards were eating the food," Luis said. "They would help themselves."

People staying at the hotel were afraid to protest too much over the food situation. "If you complained, they created a file, and you could be kicked out," Luis said. Instead, residents began to look for nutrition beyond the shelter. 

They learned which restaurants in the neighborhood might be persuaded to give out unconsumed food at the end of the night. "We would go around, looking for donations," Luis said. 

Once a month, a social worker would come to the shelter to find out how people were doing. Residents complained about the food. The social worker would take notes, and acknowledge the concerns, Luis said, but nothing ever changed.

When they were first assigned to the Vybe, the family was told they'd have a year there before they needed to figure out other housing, Luis said. But after five months,they received a piece of paper under their door informing them that they only had one month left. They would need to move out and go back to the Roosevelt Hotel to reapply for housing. 

"The shelter was not a good place to be, but we didn't want to move out, because the kids were happy in their school," María said. 

A few of the other migrant families at PS 139 facing eviction from their shelter found temporary living arrangements with the families of their children's classmates, minimizing disruption for their schooling. But Luis and María worried: Once they left the shelter system voluntarily, there would be no going back. Where would they go if a family placement didn't work out, or once it stopped being an option? They decided to stay in the City system, and hoped they would be placed in a shelter close to school.

After a day of waiting back at the Roosevelt, officials originally wanted to put the family in a shelter in Queens, hours away from their kids' school. But because PS 139 had provided them with a document requesting a placement close to the school, they were instead assigned to a shelter in Brooklyn—but it was across town in Clinton Hill, near the BQE, 45 minutes or an hour away by public transportation. The city provided a school bus to get Sophia to 2nd grade, but there was no transportation provided to get José to his pre-K class, and he was too young to take public transportation by himself. 

So María has been escorting both kids to school, taking the 57 bus to Downtown Brooklyn and transferring to the B41 down Flatbush Avenue, using a Metrocard provided by the school. "Every day," María says, in English, for emphasis. Sometimes she takes the same route back home, only to do it all again for school pick-up. Other days she is able to spend the day with a family who lives close to school, saving her a couple hours of transit. 

Their new home by the Navy Yard is not an improvement, either. At least at the Vybe, the family had their own small room, Luis says. The new shelter has common bathrooms, and is an open space separated by dividers that don't go all the way up to the ceiling. They can hear other children crying through the night, and they can't control when the lights turn on and off. 

"The kids aren't sleeping well," María said. Older kids at the shelter stay up late making noise. Some of their belongings have been stolen. Residents of the large shelter for single men next door spill out into the street. "It's not a good environment for kids," Luis summarizes.

A few hours before I spoke to them, Luis and María had decided to leave the shelter system after all. A family at PS 139 had agreed to put them up in their home through the end of the school year.

What happens after that is unclear. Luis's asylum application is pending, and María's is in process. "We don't want to live off of the government and the state," Luis said. "We want to be able to work and to buy things for our kids." Luis has a pending work permit application. In the meantime, his under-the-table work brings in $400 a week. One paycheck a month goes to servicing the debt the family incurred to bring María and the kids into the country.

"It's not enough," Luis says. 

I asked Luis and María if they feel as though their experience with the City shelter system feels as though it was calculated to make them so uncomfortable that they leave. There's not another place where it would make more sense for them to be, Luis answered. "There's nothing to go back to in Ecuador," he said. "We don't think of ourselves outside of this city. Our kids are here."

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