Mayor Eric Adams’ administration recently announced its decision to temporarily house asylum seekers from South America in massive tent facilities. The mayor says the tents would take the pressure off the city's straining shelter system, where more than half of the 15,000 asylum seekers that have arrived since the spring are residing.
But the sprawling white tents filled with cots may breach the city's long standing legal obligations to provide shelter to anybody who seeks it. A tent facility for adult asylum seekers is being built at Orchard Beach in the Bronx. A second facility will primarily house families, but its location has not been announced.
Josh Goldfein is a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society, a non-profit legal group that assists low-income families and individuals. He sat down with WNYC’s Sean Carlson to discuss the city’s decision to temporarily house migrants from the southern border in large tents.
The transcript of their discussion below was aired Thursday on WNYC’s "All Things Considered" and has been lightly edited for clarity:
Sean Carlson: What exactly is the “right to shelter” and why is it important to the city?
Josh Goldfein: In its nuts and bolts, the right to shelter is a set of court orders, state regulations, and New York City local laws that guarantee every New Yorker who is homeless the ability to access a bed that night in a safe and secure place.
The legal obligations are different for single adults, for families with children, and for what the city calls “adult families,” or families with no minor children in the household. But the bottom line is that everybody who needs a bed for the night should get one. And that's the reason we don't see children or adults sleeping en masse in the streets of New York the way that you see in other cities.
With winter approaching, is housing migrants in massive tent structures the best option right now… or ever?
Well, the city is not talking about housing them in these places. They say people will be there for 24 to 96 hours, so they will be doing some sleeping. The city showed some pictures of a tent with a lot of beds in it and said it would be something like the photos.
But we haven't seen exactly what they plan to set up. We've asked a lot of questions about what will happen at these sites, what the services are that will be offered to people, how they'll get there, how they'll get out of there, when it'll be time to go, how they'll accommodate people with disabilities. And we’re waiting for the answers to all these questions.
Do you think that the mayor’s plan violates the city’s long-standing right-to-shelter mandate?
The city assured us from the beginning that people would be able to go to the Department of Homeless Services and ask for a bed if they need one. So, it appears that they view this as something over and above the existing shelter system. They're not going to tell people who are taken to these places that they can't access the shelter system, if they would prefer to do that. So, it appears that they will still respect that there is a right to shelter and that people who are in these places, if they are unable to stay there for whatever reason, will still have access to the shelter system.
Earlier this week, the mayor indicated that his plan wouldn't comply with the city’s right-to-shelter mandate. He said that the asylum crisis and the court decree requiring the city to provide a bed to anybody who needs it are separate issues. Does your organization agree with that? Is your organization considering taking legal action?
I think that the mayor's comments may have been misinterpreted. I think what the mayor was trying to say was that the tent sites are not part of the regular shelter system. They're — in the city's eyes — an additional resource that is available to people. We're still waiting to hear exactly what will be offered at that resource. But in the view of the city, the shelter system is still there. This is just a new service that they want to provide to people.
And I think the big question will be whether this is a service people want to take advantage of and find valuable.
Does the mayor's plan set a bad precedent for the future of the right-to-shelter mandate?
A huge concern we had when the city initially informed us of this plan was that they not place children in congregate settings. We have seen this time and time again, including after Hurricane Sandy, when the city used congregate disaster shelters that are very dangerous for children and their families. The city seems to be saying now that they're not going to place children in these sites. So that was a tremendous concern, and it seems like maybe we don't have to worry about that now.
If the goal is to offer people something new that would enable them to avoid going to a shelter and help them get on their feet and get on their way, then that might be a service that people arriving here would find useful. But if the goal is to create an obstacle to people getting to services that they need, then it's going to raise pretty serious concerns and we would have to step in at that point. But our hope is that the city will create something that's actually useful to people and then everyone will benefit and we won't have to argue about it.