In a defining image of New York’s migrant crisis, scores of asylum seekers slept on the pavement outside the migrant processing center at the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown last summer. When the temperatures plunge this winter, any similar breakdowns could prove much more dire.
As the city’s asylum seeker challenge deepens, the mercury dips and new shelter deadlines approach for the arrivals, advocates are worried the migrants could face a long, cold winter.
“This becomes even more of a life-and-death issue as the weather gets cold,” said Dave Giffen, director of the Coalition for the Homeless, a court-appointed monitor of the city’s shelters. “It’s going to get ugly.”
New York City currently has about 67,000 asylum seekers in its care, according to Mayor Adams’ office, up by about 20,000 since the start of the summer.
Many of the migrants, who started to stream into New York in large numbers in spring 2022, fled political and economic upheaval in South America. They may not be well-prepared for the city’s winter winds and teeth-rattling chills.
Frigid at St. Brigid
Last month, images began to emerge of bundled-up migrants waiting outside a former Catholic school in Manhattan’s East Village that has been transformed into a reticketing site, theoretically a location for people trying to leave the city. Harvey Epstein, the local assemblyman, said outdoor lines massing in the morning made for a recurring issue during the last week of November at the site, the St. Brigid School.
The city said it would make special efforts to keep lines indoors at the reticketing center, rearranging the site to offer more space inside, and introducing a system allowing migrants to leave without losing their spot in line. The line abated for several days at the start of December.
But by Thursday, the line was back in full force— snaking around the block as snowflakes fell on Manhattan. Carlina Rivera, the local city councilwoman, said the overwhelming majority of the thousand or so migrants at the station were looking for a place to stay in the city, not a ticket out of town. She said Thursday she had spoken to one man in line who said he had slept on the subway the previous night and was seeking a warm bed.
“What I saw today was heartbreaking,” Rivera said, sighing. “A line of men outside. They were shivering. They had on very thin jackets, no hats. Just totally unprepared for the weather.”
On Thursday night, a couple dozen migrants slept outside the shelter, Epstein said. And a line of about 100 people stretched around the corner again by 7 a.m. on Friday.
“We need to find locations where people can stay inside,” Epstein said, adding that the city did not create the problem, but has a responsibility to keep people warm. “A lot of human suffering is happening, unfortunately.”
The Adams administration has pledged to work to keep lines and waiting rooms indoors. “It’s unfortunate that we are in this circumstance that we’re in,” Adams, a moderate Democrat, said at a recent news conference. “We don’t want people waiting outside on lines.”
Overall, the mayor’s office said it has spent nearly $3 billion to support the arrivals, opening up more than 210 emergency shelters, including controversial far-flung, tent-style megashelters in eastern Queens and southern Brooklyn.
“Simply put, we’re out of good options,” Kayla Mamelak, an Adams spokeswoman, said in a statement. “While we are grateful for the assistance we have gotten from our state and federal partners, it is crucial — now, more than ever — that the federal government finish the job.”
Mamelak declined to detail any contingency plans the administration has developed in case asylum seekers wind up on the street during the winter, saying the city is focused foremost on keeping asylum seekers inside. But she acknowledged the uphill battle the city faces.
Advocates have suggested the city’s planned approach to the winter — with adults forced to reapply for shelter at once-a-month intervals, families soon forced to reapply, too, and many shelters austere in their accommodations — could make it inevitable that some migrants are stranded outside.
The Adams administration has also sought to reduce costs by pushing a judge to suspend the city’s unique right-to-shelter rule. The step could potentially curb the flow of migrants, who appear aware that shelter awaits them in New York.
But it could also push people onto the street.
The city, which is backed by Gov. Hochul’s administration in the court endeavor to freeze the right to shelter, has landed in mediation with the Legal Aid Society, which opposes the suspension. Hochul, a moderate Democrat, has said the right to shelter is “not sustainable” given the crisis.
The Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society held rallies in lower Manhattan and Albany supporting the right to shelter on Tuesday, the 44th anniversary of the landmark Manhattan Supreme Court ruling that found the right in the state Constitution.
At Bowling Green in lower Manhattan, hundreds of demonstrators gathered for the rally, and dozens of tents popped up with the phrase “Hochulville” on them — a reference to tent cities that advocates suggest could result from a right-to-shelter suspension.
At one point, demonstrators chanted, “We don’t want no Hochulvilles!”
Hochul’s spokesman Avi Small responded sharply to the rally, suggesting that critics of the governor spend their time assisting her efforts to accelerate work permitting for asylum seekers.
Small said in a statement that if advocates “focused their resources on helping with work authorization paperwork rather than wasting time on political stunts, it’s likely more migrants would have achieved legal work status and exited shelters.”
Josh Goldfein, a Legal Aid lawyer, warned in court papers before the right-to-shelter case went to mediation that a suspension could put migrants and long-term homeless New Yorkers at “risk of bodily harm and death” this winter.
He said last week that he could not provide a timetable on when mediation would conclude. In mediation, a mediator facilitates a resolution of a matter but does not determine the outcome.
60-day deadline dejection
Even with right-to-shelter still in force, advocates were worried about the realities facing the asylum seekers.
The status quo would pose “unfair and unnecessary” challenges for migrants this winter, said Christine Quinn, who leads the city-supported Win shelter network.
“If the winter is half of what they say it’s going to be,” she said, “it will be deadly to have people on the street.”
Advocates also were concerned about the potential effects of an upcoming deadline for some families with children to find places to stay, or to reapply for shelter in the city. The deadline for the so-called 60-day notices is expected to fall sometime after Christmas, perhaps as soon as Dec. 27.
Michael Mulgrew, the president of the New York City teachers union, suggested the deadline would be especially harmful for migrant children, who are just beginning to get settled in new schools and might get scattered to new school districts.
“No child should be thrown out in the street — period,” Mulgrew said. “We shouldn’t be doing anything that’s going to undo work that helped us stabilize a child.”