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City of Immigrants

Migrants Are Outside, Cold, and Hungry. Volunteers Are Trying to Feed Them. The Adams Administration Isn’t Helping

After promises from the City that funding for a volunteer group would help pay for warm meals, the City hasn't sent over a cent.

1:12 PM EST on January 18, 2024

On Wednesday afternoon, dozens of migrants waited on the southwest corner of Tompkins Square Park for the thrice-weekly food distribution by EV Loves NYC, a mutual aid group founded during the COVID-19 pandemic that has lately pivoted to assisting migrants. An orderly line formed, while more than a dozen volunteers, including the group's cofounder Mammad Mahmoodi, handed out the food—beef or chicken shawarma, rice, and a side of dolmas—and warm coffee, as temperatures hovered in the teens. 

Mahmoodi and other volunteers have been handing out the meals to migrants since the middle of November, when the City began instituting thirty-day limits on single male migrants in City shelters. Once those 30 days are up, people are sent to the East Village, to a City-run processing center at the former St. Brigid School, where they can reapply for shelter (or, alternatively, get a one-way ticket out of the city). Outside of the reticketing center, people looking for a new shelter placement spend hours (and even days) waiting on line outside in the cold, and sleeping on benches or finding shelter from the elements in Tompkins Square Park. 

EV Loves NYC cofounder Mammad Mahmoodi (Hell Gate)

"I was walking by one day in November, and just saw the line forming, these people with all their belongings, in the cold, [with] no access to food, and we just ran over to get some food to start handing out," explained Mahmoodi. But almost from the start, the Adams administration has been throwing barriers in the way of the organization, giving often-contradictory guidance on how community groups can help migrants in need. 

Wednesday's meal distribution was no different. Shortly after meals began to be handed out, a few NYPD officers slowly dragged themselves out of nearby idling police cruisers and approached. 

"Are you in charge here?" they asked this Hell Gate reporter, before eventually identifying Mahmoodi. The NYPD officer told Mahmoodi that he would need a permit to distribute food and the distribution had to end right then. 

"I understand you're trying to do a good thing," the officer told Mahmoodi. "But these people fight out here, things get out of control. You're going to need someone to clean up this mess you created," the officer said, motioning to the dozens of men eating warm food. 

(Hell Gate)

Mahmoodi replied there hadn't been fighting during distribution, and that the only tension stemmed from the ten police officers who had arrived on the scene, to stoically watch food being handed out. An exasperated employee from Emergency Management (NYCEM), the City agency tasked with running the reticketing center, stood to the side. A compromise was eventually reached—Mahmoodi could continue handing out meals, but only on the condition that he get a permit for the next distribution, this coming Friday. The NYCEM official said they would work with Mahmoodi on obtaining one. 

On Thursday, a spokesperson for Emergency Management told Hell Gate that the permits would only be needed if the group continued to hand out food in Tompkins Square Park—and would be allowed to continue without a permit if the group stuck to the opposite corner, where St. Brigid School is located. 

Mahmoodi was unfazed—this sort of interference has been par for the course from the Adams administration since they began the meal program. "If they give us a permit, OK, fine, but they haven't done anything else they said they would, so we're going to distribute food regardless," he said. 

(Hell Gate)

According to Mahmoodi, NYCEM, formerly known as OEM, was initially enthusiastic about EV Loves NYC's work to feed migrants. "OEM was the one who called us and asked if we could do this again, after our first distribution," he told Hell Gate. 

But NYCEM's assistance has been minimal, as well as contradictory. Besides sometimes allowing the group into the reticketing center's backyard to distribute food, OEM hasn't been much help. Despite Emergency Management Commissioner Zach Iscol promising Mahmoodi that the City would begin funneling some money to EV Loves NYC to help the organization provide hot meals, that hasn't happened yet. "They promised us funding, and they absolutely did not follow up," Mahmoodi told Hell Gate. His group has been handing out around 2,000 meals a week, and Mahmoodi estimates that the cost comes out to around $3 a meal, far less than what the City is paying contractors for meals, and at much, much greater quality. (Migrants have reported rotten food at many shelter locations.) Mahmoodi isn't concerned about running out of money, as it's powered by small donations, but he said EV Loves NYC would be able to scale up its efforts if it had more resources. 

(Hell Gate)

NYCEM tells Hell Gate that the money for EV Loves NYC is still on the way. 

"NYCEM deeply values the commitment and efforts of community organizations in assisting asylum seekers," a spokesperson told Hell Gate in a statement. "Our collaboration with groups like EV Loves is crucial, not only in providing immediate assistance, but also aligning with the broader goals of helping migrants transition towards independence and self-sufficiency."

Aside from the lack of funding, over the past two months, NYCEM and the NYPD have also consistently put up roadblocks to distribution. One day in December, EV Loves NYC volunteers resorted to handing food through windows to waiting hands inside the reticketing center, after they were barred from distributing food by NYCEM and told to wait several hours to resume. Security in the building eventually closed the windows to stop the food distribution. The NYPD has given contradictory instructions to the group, leading to miscommunications with the NYPD about when and where food distribution will take place. 

On Tuesday, Adams touted the cumbersome 30-day limit policy for saving the City billions of dollars

But critics have pointed out that hundreds of millions were handed out to companies on no-bid contracts that quickly escalated the City's spending on migrants (a practice the City says it's now moving away from). "It's tiring to have the community have to cover for the shortfalls of the City, it shouldn't be these small community organizations that fill this massive gap, and they're just wasting so much money on these contractors for awful service," Mahmoodi said. 

During Wednesday's food distribution, Dave Dash, an East Village resident and educator, held up a sign criticizing how the Adams administration has responded to the arrival of New York City's newest residents.

(Hell Gate)

"We have the resources to provide for migrants, clearly, and these people would be treated by the mayor differently, by people at large differently, if they were a different race, if they were from somewhere else," Dash said. "We can be doing so much much more, in a much more humane way."

Just after 1 p.m., the group had run out of food, after handing out over 300 meals. Migrants, many with their first warm meal in days, crowded around the few patches of sun in the park. One man took off his shoes to let his feet breathe, while another took out a speaker and began to dance, others cheering him on. The police dispersed with yet another threat to Mahmoodi that they would put a stop to the food distributions if EV Loves NYC gave out food again on Friday without a permit. 

"The level of hunger is just getting worse," Mahmoodi told Hell Gate after the distribution. "It's really bad out here, and migrants are just floating around the city at this point, with nowhere to go. The situation is deteriorating." 

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