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Fresh Hell

How Eric Adams Made the Crisis of Sheltering Asylum Seekers Worse

A city with millions to spare finds it can’t do the bare minimum, and is asking City employees to volunteer to work with asylum seekers.

2:13 PM EDT on September 23, 2022

Asylum seekers line up for assistance outside of the Port Authority Bus Terminal on August 10, 2022.

Asylum seekers line up for assistance outside of the Port Authority Bus Terminal on August 10, 2022. (Hell Gate)

It was as if Eric Adams was going out of his way to pick a fight. 

In July, as small groups of asylum seekers started arriving in New York City, Mayor Adams began castigating Texas Governor Greg Abbott for sending migrants to New York City. Except Abbott hadn’t actually begun sending busloads of migrants to New York—instead, Customs and Border Protection agents had been listing New York addresses on asylum seekers' paperwork after they crossed the border.

When these migrants got to New York, either after they were bused by Abbott to Washington, D.C,. or if found their own way from the border, they learned that the addresses weren’t actually shelters or places they could stay—so they began filing into the City’s already woefully understaffed shelter system.

Once Adams began calling Abbott out, the Texas governor answered, and now thousands of asylum seekers have been bused by Abbott to New York City in recent weeks. 

But the arrival of asylum seekers to New York City isn't a new phenomenon. For years, as migrants have crossed the border in record numbers, many of them have come to New York City to either reunite with family or find work, and the City has been accommodating them in the shelter system while they seek more permanent housing. 

"These are issues we've been working on for a very long time, and while the volume has increased over the past few weeks, this is not entirely uncharted territory," said Josh Goldfein, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society's Homeless Rights Project.

In the past four months, driven by the arrival of asylum seekers, New York City's shelter population has gone up by more than 25 percent. The number of arriving migrants, bused from Texas and other border states, continues to increase, leading the Adams administration to consider reviving a Bloomberg-era idea of housing people on cruise ships. But as recently as 2019, the City was sheltering several thousand more people than it does currently. 

So what changed? Before leaving office, the de Blasio administration closed down thousands of substandard scattered site units, in an effort to improve conditions for shelter residents. That decision was predicated on the idea that those beds would be replaced by new and more centrally located shelter sites that would have dedicated services and adequate space for families.

Except a funny thing happened to those new units—many of them never opened. Faced with community resistance, the incoming Adams administration chose to abandon them, leaving the amount of available shelter beds seriously diminished just ahead of the arrival of the most recent wave of asylum seekers. At the same time, the expiration of pandemic-era eviction moratoriums led to formerly housed New York families once again filling the City's shelters, as rent in the city reached record highs

For there to be space in the shelter system now, the City must move people out of shelters and into more stable housing, something that's difficult to do when agencies like the Department of Social Services are already dealing with an exodus of workers under the Adams administration. 

"There's a lot of people sitting in shelters today who are ready to be moved out and they are just sitting there," said Goldfein, explaining that because of short-staffing, the City is behind on getting people the checks they need to move into subsidized housing. 

Last week, City Hall announced a hiring freeze and mandatory budget cuts for all City agencies. At the same time, according to emails obtained by Hell Gate, the Adams administration began asking employees to volunteer their time to work with asylum seekers, pulling in workers from already understaffed City agencies. In an email from a supervisor to a City worker, City Hall stressed the need for Spanish-speaking volunteers, assistance that the City government—in a city where one in four residents is a Spanish speaker—has been struggling to find to work with the arriving migrants. 

An email sent out to City employees last week. (Hell Gate)

Because of the staffing challenges, the City has had trouble keeping up with the arrival of asylum seekers, violating court-mandated rules that ban the practice of allowing people to sleep in processing centers. The City has been renting hundreds of rooms, but still finds itself struggling to process and shelter everyone. And Mayor Adams has chafed at the City's legal mandate to provide shelter to everyone who needs it. Last weekend, an asylum seeker took her own life after spending five months in a shelter

Which brings us to yesterday's rushed announcement of the construction of congregant tent shelters in at least two locations in the city, with the first one sited in Orchard Beach. 

Pictures released by the administration of the proposed facilities raise questions about whether they truly abide by the City's mandate, and if moving asylum seekers far from the city center can be considered safe and accessible accommodation. The City has been trying to centralize its services for asylum seekers, and feels the tents would allow for a much more seamless and comfortable process for migrants. 

New York is dealing with some unique challenges. Many of the bused migrants are from Venezuela, and, unlike many Central American migrants, have no family in the United States with whom they can stay. City Hall has said the tents are only going to house any one individual for 24 to 96 hours, and during that time, City Hall tells Hell Gate, efforts would be made to connect them to family and keep them out of the formal shelter system if they would like to travel elsewhere in the country. 

Without further funding for the response, however, Legal Aid's Goldfein worries that the City is just going to keep making a situation it helped create that much worse. 

"If you want to solve this, you're going to need to staff up, spend money on housing subsidies for people seeking housing, which in the long term will ultimately save you money," he said. "If you invest the money now, you'll free up space in the system, and you won't have to build tent sites or think about renting cruise ships."

New York is not alone in dealing with large numbers of asylum seekers all arriving at the same time. 

For the past four years, the San Diego Rapid Response Network, a collection of local nonprofits, has worked with almost 100,000 migrants who cross into San Diego to figure out their travel, give people health check-ups, and provide mental health support. The nonprofits in San Diego found a willing partner with the local government to ensure that each person was attended to individually.

"We learned there are a lot of basic needs that are urgently needed to be provided, and it's easiest to do that in a safe, separate place for migrants, where they can have respite shelter," said Kate Clark, the lead immigration attorney with Jewish Family Service of San Diego. 

At times, Jewish Family Service has run a shelter near the border to provide temporary housing for migrants.

"They're not in our custody, they're in our care—they don't have to stay with us, should they choose to leave," Clark said. "We're really just there as a connector to help them safely move on to either their families, a sponsor, or in some cases, housing in San Diego."

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