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Conditions for Migrants Allowed to Worsen As Judge Asks City and State to Play Nice

New York's government is approaching some form of collaboration, as more migrants arrive in the city.

9:29 AM EDT on August 24, 2023

A newly completed Creedmoor Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center (HERRC) in Queens on Tuesday, August 15, 2023. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Three weeks ago, a state judge chastised New York state for not helping New York City enough when it came to providing shelter for the thousands of migrants arriving to the city each week. In dueling legal filings, both the City and the state pointed fingers at each other and laid the blame elsewhere. Attorney General Letitia James even left the case, after she reportedly refused to defend the governor's position that the state has no responsibility to shelter migrants. 

At a hearing on the case on Wednesday, Judge Erika Edwards, and the lawyers for the Legal Aid Society (which is a party to the consent decree that guarantees the right to shelter in New York), were feeling much more optimistic about how the City and state are working together to find shelter for migrants arriving to New York City. 

"We're grateful that the City and state are now getting to work together to more urgently resolve this problem, the state is taking seriously its obligations and putting more resources on the table," said Joshua Goldfein, one of the Legal Aid lawyers, at a press conference Wednesday after a closed-door hearing with Judge Edwards and lawyers from the private law firm, Selendy Gay Elsberg, that's now representing the state. 

Since the meeting three weeks ago, and a court order basically telling the City and state to start working together more, Governor Kathy Hochul has taken a more active role in helping the City manage the arrival of migrants—setting aside more money, opening more shelters, and leaning on the federal government to allow the state to use Floyd Bennett Field as a shelter

But there's one key request made by the City that the governor has pushed back on—having more upstate cities shelter migrants. Hochul disagrees with the notion that the City's right-to-shelter policy, which derives from a judge's interpretation of the state constitution, is an obligation that must be borne by the entire state

“It’s argued that the best way for this to go is for the governor to take charge of the process, to have one set of rules that applies statewide and to direct where people should go based on need,” Goldfein said on Wednesday. 

But Hochul's refusal to budge on this has left lawyers for Legal Aid, which still represents the plaintiffs in the 1979 lawsuit Callahan v. Carey that established the mandate, in a difficult spot—if they continue to push for a broader interpretation of the consent decree, it's possible that a different state judge will strike the policy down entirely. 

"We can only discuss the issue at hand," Goldfein said when asked about arguments for applying the shelter obligation statewide. The current round of litigation stems from hundreds of people sleeping on the sidewalk outside of the Roosevelt Hotel at the end of July, a clear violation of the City's shelter policy. Since the City has since found overnight accommodation for migrants, lawyers for Legal Aid have not yet made arguments to extend the shelter obligation statewide. 

But as quickly as the City has opened up shelter space, it's been filled with more arriving migrants—a 1,000-person shelter in Queens that was only opened two weeks ago is already nearing capacity. Almost 60,000 migrants are currently being held in shelters run by various City agencies, according to an update from the city on Wednesday. A letter obtained by City Limits on Wednesday shows that the state has granted permission to the City to lower its standards for shelters for arriving migrants, waiving requirements on providing towels, toilet paper, and clean sheets. 

A group of conservative councilmembers also filed a letter to Judge Edwards regarding the case, which led to a strange scene at Manhattan Supreme Court during Wednesday's mostly closed-door hearing, when Brooklyn Councilmember Inna Vernikov marched across the courtroom and attempted to enter the judge's chambers to take part in the conference with the judge, despite not being a party to the case. (She was rebuffed by court officers.) 

Edwards has asked the parties to remain in contact and work together to find shelter for migrants. She set September 18 for the next status hearing in the case. 

And now, some other stories of note:

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