A decision by Mayor Eric Adams to abruptly relocate a “tent city” for asylum seekers from Orchard Beach in the Bronx to Randall’s Island is drawing similar concerns from elected officials and advocates that the location is inaccessible and at risk of flooding.
Much like the planned Orchard Beach facility, the so-called “Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center” slated to temporarily house 500 asylum seekers on Randall’s Island is hard to get to by public transportation — requiring a subway and bus ride.
“I think Randall’s Island presents exactly the same serious problems that Orchard Beach had, but even worse,” said Councilmember Shekar Krishnan, who serves on the City Council’s immigration committee. “But Randall’s Island is even more isolating. It's disconnected from transportation, it's disconnected from schools and other services.”
Tucked away between the Harlem and East River, Randall’s Island is known for hosting music festivals and sporting events, boasting “approximately half of all athletic fields in Manhattan,” according to the Randall’s Island Park Alliance.
The mayor announced he was abandoning the 1,000-person Orchard Beach facility late Monday, after weekend rains caused flooding in the parking lot where massive white tents were being erected, a concern elected officials flagged when Adams first unveiled the plan late last month.
Although portions of Randall’s Island are also in a flood zone, Adams defended his administration’s decision to move the facility, noting that it’s at a higher elevation than Orchard Beach.
“It’s a higher peak,” Adams said. “The parking lot is a better use for it.”
But as remnants of Hurricane Ian continues to pour rain onto New York City, there are warning signs that the same flooding fate may come to Randall’s Island.
Council Member Diana Ayala, whose district includes Randall's Island, told Gothamist that she saw flood warning signs and water pooling at the parking lot southwest of the Icahn stadium on Randall’s Island, the location for the proposed relief center, when she visited on Tuesday.
"I don't understand how we determined that that was the ideal location, based on what I physically able to see," she said.
The pivot from the Adams administration comes amid protests at Orchard Beach, from a coalition of local Democrats and Republicans who were furious that the community hadn’t been consulted and that the site was poorly chosen, given the fast-approaching winter and lack of transportation options.
“No buses, no transportation. Are they out of their mind?” asked Al Quattlebaum, a pastor and Democratic candidate for state legislature from Co-op City who spoke at a protest Monday. Nearby, protesters waved Trump 2024 flags while others shouted “Send them back to where they came from!”
The plan to temporarily house asylum seekers in sprawling tent structures to alleviate some of the pressure from the city’s ailing homeless shelter system, has also drawn the ire of fellow Democrats, who warn that it’s not a long-term fix.
“Unfortunately, given the displacement of people because of climate change, because of religious and economic persecution, we’re only going to continue to see more people gravitate towards countries and cities where they feel the most welcome,” said State Sen. Jessica Ramos.
Roughly 16,000 asylum seekers have arrived in New York City since the spring, according to the Adams administration, with more than half residing in city shelters. As the mayor warns that tens of thousands of more migrants could arrive in the city in the coming months, Ramos argues that City Hall should think beyond tents.
“This is not a sustainable solution,” said Ramos. “We need to have contracts with hotels that still have vacancy rates, but also get cracking on a permanent solution to this crisis.”
Unsure how the city will successfully erect a relief center in a parking lot on Randall’s Island, Ayala said that City Hall should instead consider other "brick-and-mortar" options, like shuttered hospitals and schools.
Other officials also questioned whether the city was failing to fulfill its legal obligation to provide shelter to anyone who needs it, a roughly four decade-old mandate that spells out minimum requirements the city has to provide homeless individuals.
On Twitter, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams wrote that “a tent shelter anywhere in this city cannot be used to circumvent the right-to-shelter mandate.”
Kathryn Kliff, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project, said city officials have emphasized that anyone who lives at the site would do so on a voluntary basis and are free to come and go.
Still, some critics said the crisis of housing asylum seekers spoke to a larger crisis of housing, one that has plagued New Yorkers for years and which has flared during the pandemic, as shelters have filled to capacity.
In a joint statement, the Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless took a stronger approach than it had in recent weeks, saying that the migrant tents were a “wrongheaded plan” that should be abandoned.
“Hotels have always been the better short-term option, rather than erecting tents in inaccessible parts of New York City. This Administration can unilaterally remove the many bureaucratic barriers that plague its housing voucher process to transition more homeless New Yorkers from shelters into safe, permanent housing,” the organizations said.
Contributed reporting by Arya Sundaram.