A mother’s suicide at a city shelter over the weekend is renewing calls that city officials do more to assist the influx of people coming to New York City seeking asylum in the United States.
At the Port Authority bus terminal Tuesday morning, a day after Mayor Eric Adams announced that an asylum seeker had died Sunday, volunteers and non-profit workers described the patchwork of policies and goodwill they rely on to assist new arrivals disembarking from buses.
A recently opened resource center in Hell’s Kitchen geared toward asylum seekers and the city’s mental health hotline provides little solace for new arrivals who don’t have access to cell phones and can’t easily navigate the city, said Ariadna Phillips of the South Bronx Mutual Aid, which has been involved in daily relief efforts at the Port Authority.
“The current tools that are being made available to them are just not accessible for where people are at,” Phillips said in a phone call.
“They need to be able to access somebody that can talk with them or somewhere they can go in person for services. And in many cases, we're the ones answering the crisis calls at all hours of the day and night, because we're the only ones to answer,” she added.
The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
'I have much to give, still'
It’s not just the scores of volunteers who are navigating the confusion and chaos spurred by the busing of thousands of asylum seekers from Republican-led states in the south to northern cities.
New arrivals — many of whom don’t speak English and spent months on a harrowing journey through Central and South America — are arriving at the Port Authority with little knowledge of what to expect or information about their loved ones.
Inside a cordoned off area at the Port Authority manned by volunteers and some city officials, newly-arrived asylum seekers sit in rows of chairs, speaking to volunteers, getting medical checkups, and downing coffee and snacks, as they waited for an MTA bus to take them to a city shelter intake center. Port Authority police, carrying long guns, roamed the area.
Among the just arrived was Bianney Jose León, 62, who traveled from Venezuela with three of his children and four grandchildren.
After a month-long journey through several countries, he arrived in New York, alone, after being separated from his family at the border in Texas.
He expected his son and grandchild to arrive in New York City on a later bus Tuesday, but he had no idea where his other two children and three grandchildren had ended up.
Limping from an infected cut he got on his foot during the journey, León was hopeful that he would soon reunite with his family and start building a life in New York City, where immigration judges are much more likely to grant asylum than in cities down south.
“We came with that conviction, and desire to work,” he said in Spanish. “I came to work. I have much to give, still.”
Social worker Yessenia Benitez has been coordinating food and supply drop offs to asylum seekers staying in shelters around the city. She described the layers of trauma many people are grappling with caused by the conditions at home that forced them to flee, the perils of the journey halfway across the continent and the U.S. border, and then the challenges they face now that they’re living in the city’s shelter system.
“They're begging me, they're begging me to help them in one way or another. All they want is the ability to work,” she said.
She’s taken to providing a little levity where she can: birthday parties for the kids, bringing groups of people on day trips to the beach, Times Square for photo ops to send to family they left behind.
“I'm like, ‘What would help you feel better right now?’”
Jorge Muniz Reyes, another community activist involved in providing relief, said some people they’d encountered had slept on the floor of an intake center, or slept on the streets for days before finding their way to one. Others described violent conditions inside shelters and unpredictable access to food. He said he thought mental health support for asylum seekers came secondary to assuring they have safe and secure places to live.
“A home and stability is the best kind of mental health support that you can have,” he said. “Being bussed [around] having one social worker after another, after another. That cannot provide any kind of support for families.”
The calls for more support come on the heels of the death of a “young mother,” Adams announced Monday, arguing that the city did not fail her and laying the blame on governors in hardline immigration states.
The woman had arrived in New York City from Colombia in May and was staying with her 15-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter at a family shelter in Hollis, Queens, NBC New York 4 reported Monday night.
City officials declined to provide more information about her death citing privacy concerns.
The woman’s suicide came as the city has seen a continued spike in people entering shelters since March, a 26% increase, though advocates say that figure is likely an undercount. They also point to a rise in evictions following the end of the state’s eviction moratorium as a compounding factor in the increase in homelessness in the city.
While it’s not the most people the city shelter system has housed at any given time, it is the most rapid rate of increase, according to city data going back to 2014.
At a press conference Monday, Adams said 11,600 asylum seekers had arrived since the spring, 8,500 of whom are staying in city shelters.
New York City officials have struggled to keep up with the numbers of people arriving each day – instead relying on a network of activists and volunteers to drive people to shelters, put them up in hotels, or buy them an Uber or a bus ticket to a place where they might have family awaiting their arrival.
Volunteer Ilze Thielmann with Team TLC-NYC, who’s been at the Port Authority daily since early August, said there’s more support from the certain city agencies, as well as from the Port Authority and state officials since last month.
While volunteers were at first kicked out of the Port Authority, they now have a sanctioned area where they can interview arrivals and give them food and supplies. The MTA started providing regular buses to take immigrants directly to shelters, and the city has been coordinating medical care on site.
Volunteers bring all the food and supplies, however. Thielmann said she’s often left paying out of pocket for the travel expenses of people who aren’t going to city shelters, but are trying to reconnect with loved ones.
“It's crazy that we have these state, federal and city governments who are letting me personally bear the burden of relocating these people, it's completely insane,” she said.