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New York City strains to meet migrant influx

Mayor Eric Adams calls for federal aid

Asylum seekers arrive at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York on May 19, 2023. Associated Press/Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

New York City strains to meet migrant influx

Josiah Haken is used to seeing chronically homeless men, and occasionally women, lining up at his mobile outreach centers in and around New York City. “We didn’t ever use to see little kids or babies,” said Haken, CEO of the nonprofit City Relief. “And that’s completely changed. Now we’re seeing families … at locations that for years have been populated almost exclusively by adults.”

Most of the families are immigrants who arrived in New York City with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Most don’t speak English. City Relief offers hot meals, hygiene supplies, and referrals to housing or rehabilitation organizations. They serve about 1,500 people each week. “We’ve been seeing numbers continue to climb,” Haken said. He said the migrant influx and post-pandemic economic difficulties created a “perfect storm.”

Tens of thousands of immigrants have streamed into New York City since the first bus sent from a U.S.-Mexico border state arrived with 50 immigrants last August. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began busing immigrants who volunteered to go to New York as thousands of immigrants streamed into Texas border cities every day. When New York City Mayor Eric Adams protested, Abbott pointed to the Big Apple’s self-proclaimed sanctuary city status, arguing it was time for the rest of the country to get a taste of the border states’ daily reality. Arizona and Florida also transported migrants to big cities that had championed welcoming asylum-seekers.

The migrant influx again made headlines last week after news outlets published images of people sleeping outside the Roosevelt Hotel, New York City’s main intake center. Nearly 100,000 migrants have arrived in New York City and about 57,000 still sleep in city shelters, straining the city past its “breaking point,” Adams said last Wednesday.

The embattled mayor is calling for state and federal aid while simultaneously challenging the city’s right-to-shelter mandate that requires the city to provide a bed for everyone who wants one. In the meantime, local nonprofits are shifting their strategies to accommodate the influx of Spanish speakers struggling to navigate housing shortages and work restrictions.

Immigrants make up the majority of the more than 100,000 residents of the city’s shelter system, up from 61,000 in 2021. So far, New York City has opened almost 200 emergency sites. In his Wednesday address, Adams said the city spends about $383 per family every night to provide shelter, food, and social services, totaling $9.8 million daily. He expects the city to spend $5 billion by year’s end and a total of $12 billion over the next three fiscal years.

“This is the budgetary reality we are facing if we don’t get the additional support we need from the federal and state governments,” he said.

Adams called on President Joe Biden to declare a federal state of emergency, in addition to the state of emergency that New York Gov. Kathy Hochul declared in May, arguing the move would bring in federal funds more quickly. “The immigration system in this nation is broken. It has been broken for decades,” he said. “Today, New York City has been left to pick up the pieces.”

The city sued more than 30 upstate municipalities and local leaders in June for barring the city from relocating immigrants to their locales. Attorneys asked the state Supreme Court to consider whether the counties’ actions are unconstitutional since they restrict the city’s efforts to mitigate the statewide emergency.

Most immigrants pouring into the city are asylum-seekers hoping to win their cases in immigration court—often a yearslong process thanks to backlogs. City Relief’s Haken said many flock to New York because of name recognition, believing the city offers them their best shot at the American dream.

Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, said the city’s right-to-shelter mandate also incentivizes the journey north. In 1979, advocates sued the city on behalf of a few thousand homeless men, arguing the city was failing to provide for the needy as outlined in the state constitution. The court agreed and ordered that the state constitution obligated the city to house the homeless men and supply them with basic provisions.

A few years later, the court expanded the mandate beyond just communal shelter for men. Now, the city rents thousands of apartments for homeless families every night. The city only has 125,000 hotel rooms, Gelinas noted, adding that each apartment set aside for a homeless family exacerbates the city’s housing shortage. “We have something never contemplated at the time, thousands of people arriving in New York City every single week and showing up and being eligible for the right to shelter,” she said.

Adams asked the court to modify the right-to-shelter rule back in May. The court should waive the mandate when the city runs out of resources to “establish or maintain sufficient shelter sites, staffing, and security to provide safe and appropriate shelter,” city lawyer Jonathan Pines wrote in the city’s application.

In a joint statement, Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society called the request “nonsensical,” warning that it allows the city “to deny shelter to unhoused people at their whim with no legal consequences.”

The court is also considering a rule Adams implemented in July, limiting adult immigrants without children to 60 days in a city shelter unless they reapply for a new placement. The average shelter stay for a single adult in 2022 was 509 days—just under a year and a half.

Gelinas pointed out that Adams’ challenges do not attack the foundations of the right-to-shelter mandate. “These are the somewhat limited issues that are taking months to play out in court,” she said. “They’re just kind of adding an administrative burden without redefining the right to shelter.”

On Aug. 9, the city submitted a court-ordered proposal to the state, including requests for a state-run relocation program to help settle new arrivals in other counties and state-run emergency relief sites. The state’s scathing response listed how New York state has already helped and accused the city of making collaboration difficult. The next hearing is scheduled for August 16.

In the meantime, immigrants are struggling to make enough money to move out of the shelter system. U.S. immigration law prohibits asylum-seekers from working for about six months after filing a claim, and paperwork backlogs often stretch that timeline. Many migrants haven’t even completed the first step of filing for asylum, while others have court dates years in the future, Gelinas said. Often, migrants illegally fill shortages in low-skilled industries and nearly all are at risk of exploitation and trafficking.

Haken with City Relief has watched immigrants sell candy, fruit, or bottles of water on the subways. He said the work restrictions make it challenging for ministries and churches supporting immigrants since many don’t have a clear path forward. “You don’t really know how long this person is going to be here,” he said.

The language barrier also complicates efforts to help. Brian Ourien, the director of communications at The Bowery Mission, said the organization needs more Spanish-speaking staff. While the organization doesn’t ask people about immigration status, staff have noticed an uptick in Spanish-speaking families seeking a hot meal and about a 20 percent increase at their 124-bed emergency shelter for single men and women.

The nearly 150-year-old mission is almost at capacity. Ourien said immigrants typically spend less time at the shelter than the chronically homeless population that often struggles with substance abuse.

“They stay long enough to be connected to job opportunities, or some of the networking opportunities,” he said of the migrants. The mission added more Spanish speakers, offers vocational training, and helps move migrants into permanent housing. He’s thankful they have yet to turn anyone away.

Gelinas noted that, as long as the city keeps opening emergency sites, immigrants will keep coming. Adams is talking out of two sides of his mouth, she said. “They’re constantly saying, ‘We’re out of money, we’re out of room, don’t come through our city.’ But on the other hand, he keeps opening up welcome shelters,” she said, “People want to come to New York because of the right to shelter.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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