Mayor Eric Adams' administration’s decision to temporarily house asylum seekers in large tents may run afoul of the city's long-standing right to shelter mandate that sets minimum standards for what city shelters are required to provide to homeless people.
Billed as “humanitarian emergency response and relief centers,” the Adams administration said it would open two facilities to handle the influx of asylum seekers pouring into the city since the spring, thousands of which are being sent via bus by Republican governors in southern border states.
In a press release, the mayor pointed to past examples of “what the outside of a Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center will look like,” showing sprawling white tents filled with cots, a potential run-around to the city’s right to shelter mandate.
Under the landmark 1981 agreement, the foundation of the city’s modern shelter system, the city is required to provide a shelter bed for every person who wants one. All single adult shelters have to have beds at least three feet apart, with mattresses and clean linens. Photos issued by the mayor’s office show rows of cots packed tightly together.
“These pictures are devastating, which is probably the point,” said Kathleen Cash of the Safety Net Project. “Opening short-term municipal refugee camps through a separate city bureaucracy — while the city repeatedly failed to honor the right to shelter, and has announced plans to ‘reassess’ it — is the kind of approach many feared this administration would take.”
Details from City Hall about the temporary facilities and whether they meet the legal requirements for shelter were scant. The mayor’s office held a briefing for reporters to discuss details, but members of the media were not allowed to directly quote administration officials or use their names. WNYC/Gothamist declined to participate in the briefing due to the constraints.
"The mayor's brief statement announcing these 'relief centers' left more questions than answers, and yet his paid spokespeople have refused to be quoted about how this plan will work,” said Audrey Cooper, WNYC and Gothamist’s editor-in-chief. “It is part of a worrisome trend to obfuscate who is speaking on behalf of major city initiatives. New Yorkers deserve to know who is explaining the details, and it is our hope that the mayor discontinues this practice."
The first facility geared toward adults will open ”in the coming weeks” in Orchard Beach in the Bronx, a far flung location that requires traveling by both subway and a bus. A second facility to house families “is still being finalized” according to a press release from the mayor’s office.
Requirements for family shelters are much stricter. Each homeless family with a child is entitled to a private space with a door and lock, as well as a bathroom, refrigerator and a place to cook.
“All humanitarian relief centers will be expertly designed and built climate-controlled, safe spaces,” the mayor’s press release said.
Fabien Levy, a spokesman for the mayor, declined to say on the record whether this plan was a run-around to the right to shelter mandate.
In a joint statement Thursday afternoon, the The Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless raised concerns over the legality of the facilities.
“We are deeply concerned with any scenario in which families with children would be relegated to congregate settings,” the groups said. “This practice, which has been widely condemned for its adverse and dangerous impact on this uniquely vulnerable population, is already subject to legal prohibitions.”
Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Gov. Kathy Hochul, said the state was coordinating with the Adams administration and supported its calls for federal help.
“Governor Hochul remains concerned about the safety and well-being of migrants who are coming to our state," the spokesperson said. "We are coordinating closely with the city on the immediate response by advising and recommending options to meet the humanitarian needs of these individuals, and we fully support the city's requests for federal assistance."
During the early days of the pandemic, state officials commandeered several facilities, including the Javits Center, to turn them into hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients. The governor’s office did not immediately say whether it was considering doing something similar for asylum seekers.
Buses will arrive directly at the centers to drop off newly arrived migrants or will be directed there from the Port Authority, according to the press release. Once there, asylum seekers will “be provided with settlement options, as well as immediate health, safety, and legal information.”
Migrants who can’t immediately find housing will be allowed to stay in the tented areas for 24 to 96 hours, although City Hall said the “times are subject to change depending on the situation.”
Elected officials denounced the plans, calling it “unacceptable,”
“These are reminiscent of the tent cities we see in war torn countries, where the conditions mirror the Third World,” said Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz (D-Queens), a former “Dreamer” who was previously undocumented. “We are one of the richest cities, in one of the richest states, in one of the richest countries. This plan is completely unacceptable and raises too many concerns about the physical wellbeing of asylum seekers."
“It's incredible to see, as the daughter of Colombian immigrants, how Colombian and Venezuelan and asylum seekers are being treated,” said State Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), whose mom crossed the Mexican border in her 20s. “One of my many reactions to seeing the news of the tents today was, you know, I've never seen the city offer that for our houseless New Yorkers.”
Adams has come under fire in recent weeks after violating the right to shelter mandate at least twice, resulting in people sleeping in city offices. Earlier this week the mayor announced that a Colombian asylum seeker died by suicide at a city shelter, leaving behind two kids. Residents of the facility describe feeling isolated and like “prisoners” at the Queens shelter, where Spanish-speaking staff was largely absent.
Contributed reporting by David Cruz.
This story has been updated to include comment from Gov. Kathy Hochul's office.