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City of Immigrants

City and State Must Come Up With a Plan to Shelter Migrants, Judge Says

The mayor says ‘There’s no more room,’ but a court says both City and State are bound to provide shelter.

Asylum-seekers wait outside the Roosevelt Hotel as police look on
Timothy Fadek|

Asylum-seekers waiting to be processed outside the Roosevelt Hotel (Timothy Fadek / Hell Gate)

Lawyers for New York City and New York State were summoned to State Supreme Court this morning to account for the disturbing scene that had unfolded over the past week outside of the City's migrant intake center in midtown Manhattan's Roosevelt Hotel. Since last Friday, newly arrived asylum seekers had lined up for days, sleeping on the sidewalk and waiting to be processed and assigned a shelter. The line was finally cleared on Thursday afternoon.

City officials said they had run out of room to shelter asylum seekers, and Mayor Eric Adams said no one should expect the situation to improve. "It’s not going to get any better," he said. "From this moment on, it’s downhill. There is no more room."

The scene outside the Roosevelt this week presented a moral problem for the City— a humanitarian failure unfolding on the sidewalks of one of the richest cities in the world. But it was also a legal problem, because under a 42-year-old consent decree, New York City is bound by law to provide shelter to people who need it.

The mayor does not like this legal obligation, and earlier this year asked the court that imposed it if he might be allowed to wriggle out of it, changing the City's obligation to provide shelter to something a little less binding.

The mayor's request, vigorously opposed by the Legal Aid Society, a party to the consent decree that arose out of the 1979 lawsuit Callahan v. Carey, is still pending. 

Legal Aid lawyers watched with dismay as the situation outside the Roosevelt Hotel developed and persisted throughout this week. They sent a letter to the City, demanding that it provide the people on the sidewalk with shelter. But they got no response, said Joshua Goldfein, one of the Legal Aid lawyers, at a press conference Friday. Faced with official silence in the face of an apparently spiraling legal violation, on Thursday the lawyers asked the state's court that presides over the consent decree for an emergency hearing on the matter. Within hours, the crowds outside the Roosevelt were gone, as the City found shelter for everyone who had been waiting.

Migrants slept outside the Roosevelt Hotel, sometimes for multiple nights, waiting to be provided with shelter. (Timothy Fadek / Hell Gate)

In State Supreme Court Thursday morning, Justice Erika Edwards gaveled the emergency hearing into session and promptly ushered lawyers for the City, the State, and the people in need of shelter into the privacy of her chambers and out of sight of the public.

After nearly an hour of conference, the judge and the lawyers emerged back into open court. "I am very optimistic that we are making some progress," Edwards said, and announced that she was setting a schedule—by next Wednesday, the City administration must submit a proposal listing what sort of assistance it requires from State officials. The State's response is due by August 15. The parties will be back in court on August 16.

Outside the courthouse, Goldfein said the closed-door conference had focused on the need for the State government to do more to help the City.

"The problem is that people at the State level did not have the same sense of urgency about this problem," Goldfein said. "What the judge was trying to make happen was for people to take it seriously. They have legal obligations to serve people. The right to shelter applies statewide, this is a State legal question. The State needs to step up."

What might greater State involvement look like? For one thing, Goldfein said, Governor Kathy Hochul could issue an executive order setting a statewide policy on sheltering asylum seekers, preventing local municipalities from setting their own policies, as they have done, making it difficult to shelter migrants outside of New York City. The State could help cover the financial costs of sheltering migrants, which are considerable and growing by the day. And the State could offer up State-owned property, transportation infrastructure, and even the labor power of the National Guard, to assist with sheltering people coming to New York City. 

The State's attorney general, whose office is representing the State in the Callahan proceeding, referred questions to the Governor's office. Requests for comment to the governor and mayor were not immediately answered.

There is, of course, another authority in a position to be hugely helpful.

 "The federal government could solve this overnight by giving people work authorization," Goldfein said. "The federal government has let these folks into the United States and told them you can pursue an application, but then said you have no ability to support yourself while you're waiting, which doesn't make any sense."

Unfortunately, the federal government isn't a party in the Callahan consent decree, so Judge Edwards is not in a position to order it to do anything. Nevertheless, Goldfein said, she suggested that as long as the City is making a list of what it needs from the State, it might as well do the same for the federal government. "Let's get that out there, and let's hear what the federal government has to say," Goldfein said.

But as the City and New York State wrangle over who bears responsibility for ensuring that asylum seekers have access to basic shelter, City officials have made no commitment that scenes like what unfolded outside the Roosevelt Hotel this week won't be repeated, and that's not acceptable, Goldfein said.  

"We made clear that if it does happen again, we will come back," he said. "And the Court said that if it does happen again, she will hear from us and we will get together again and we will try to find an answer."

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