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NYC Says It Welcomes Migrants. The Reality Is More Complicated

Ella Ceron

Buses of migrants from the Southern border sent by the Texas governor continued to arrive in New York City this week, testing a repeated promise made by Mayor Eric Adams that all are welcome “with open arms.”

But the migrants coming by the busload are quickly learning that Adams’s supportive words mask a much harsher reality: A city that can’t really handle them.

New York has long been a so-called sanctuary city that won’t turn immigrants away or over to officials upon their arrival. However, the recent arrivals are confronting a lack of shelter or affordable housing options, a byzantine and bureaucratic intake process, a dearth of language and legal help, and an over-extended nonprofit sector.

“The city is totally not ready for this,” said Corey Hayes, the creative director of City Relief, a nonprofit that helps people experiencing homelessness find housing and food. “We’re a right-to-shelter city, but that doesn’t mean you know how to navigate your way through that to actually get into a shelter if you wanted to.”

Influx of Migrants

As part of an ongoing bid by Republican Greg Abbott to call out Democratic President Joe Biden on immigration, the Texas governor has been sending buses of migrants from the Texas border to Democratic cities like New York and Washington, D.C.

Even before the buses, New York’s shelters were already struggling with an influx of migrants on top of an already growing population. About 4,000 asylum seekers have entered the system in the past three months, Gary Jenkins, commissioner of the New York City Department of Social Services, said in a July letter to Comptroller Brad Lander. The nonprofit Catholic Charities of the Archdioceses of New York, which provides food and necessities to immigrants and refugees in New York City, estimates that 3,000 of those arrived in July alone.

The city’s Department of Homeless Services spending topped $3 billion last year, three times the budget from a year ago, according to a March report by the city’s Independent Budget Office. The report estimated that the city would have to increase funding for its shelter and housing voucher programs in the coming year.

The total number of individuals belonging to families with children in New York City shelter systems has increased 20% year-over-year. Note: Does not reflect the total number of people in the city shelter system, which also includes single adults and adult families without children. In addition, the intake process has been “chaotic,” said Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, the executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. “There’s no coordinated plan for their arrival,” he said.

Once someone arrives on a bus, they’re directed to one of five city-run intake centers. Centers then screen applicants to see if they have any friends or family members to live with before placing them in temporary shelter within one of five shelter systems or the 11 hotels that have recently been set up to house families. People have to stay in short-term shelter housing for at least 90 days to qualify for one of the city’s rental assistance programs for more permanent housing.

During a special hearing on the emerging crisis this week, City Council Speak Adrienne Adams recounted how, on a recent night in July, four families were forced to sleep on the floor of the intake office before they were provided with shelter placement, a legal violation.

She and other members demanded more clarity on the administration’s plans to address the needs of the recently arrived migrants.

“This not only violates the city’s right to shelter laws, but does immeasurable harm to these families. It is degrading and inhumane and not what this city stands for,” Speaker Adams said.

Mayor Adams has been quick to call out Abbott for using people as “political pawns.” Like Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, he’s asked the Biden administration for federal assistance. He’s also vowed to help families arriving in New York, calling it the city’s “responsibility,” when he greeted a bus of recent arrivals at Port Authority last weekend. “I have to provide services for families that are here.”

On Aug. 1, Adams announced an emergency declaration to “rapidly procure” additional shelter and services for the recent migrants. The city also plans on opening a new facility in midtown Manhattan that can temporarily house up to 600 households. The city is also working with the New York Immigration Coalition to better prepare for future immigrants, “so that we’re not at the last second trying to create new systems but having systems in place that are easily expandable or then retractable,” Executive Director Murad Awawdeh said.

But immigration activists and some City Council members say the city is late to tackle a persistent problem that has been adding pressure to an already fragile system. They say the city hasn’t adequately addressed issues around affordable housing, shelter options, staffing shortages, city funding, and administrative bureaucracy. 

“This problem was very foreseeable,” said Deborah Berkman, the coordinating attorney for New York Legal Assistance Group’s shelter advocacy initiative, which provides free legal services to those experiencing homelessness. “Certainly, New Yorkers are welcoming and I’m sure that the mayor does want to welcome them. But I do think that the system that’s already in place for obtaining shelter is already extremely unwelcoming.”

A New York State Supreme Court order issued in 1979 mandates that people needing shelter should be guaranteed a place to sleep. For decades, many charities and nonprofits also filled the gaps to help migrants and people experiencing homelessness find food, clothing and jobs. The recent influx of migrants comes at what is typically a busy time for these workers, whose caseloads were already full and are now hitting a breaking point.

In the meantime, nonprofits like Catholic Charities are trying to quickly mobilize. The organization is providing people with food and clothes, as well as recommendations for day labor work.

“My hope is if we provide a modicum of help to these individuals immediately in the crisis, they’re going to make it in New York and they’re going to make New York better and more vibrant,” Sullivan, the executive director, said. 

Originally published in Bloomberg on August 11, 2022.

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