New York City's first "tent city" for asylum seekers could open as soon as next week, officials revealed in a City Council hearing on Friday.
The 1,000-bed Orchard Beach site in the Bronx will be the first of two – and likely many more – emergency relief centers providing medical care, food, legal information, transportation, and temporary housing for hundreds of asylum seekers bused in daily from Texas and other border states, administration officials said.
The location of a second center – described as the size of three football fields – hasn’t been determined, said Zachary Iscol, commissioner of the city’s Office of Emergency Management. He said the city’s struggling to find an appropriate location, and asked the council members for suggestions, perhaps in their own districts.
None of the council's committee members on hand – nor anyone else attending the hearing — volunteered.
The oversight hearing by the Committee on Immigration was held as four to nine buses carrying asylum seekers have been arriving daily at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where the city and community groups already offer services to the newcomers. But city officials say the Midtown site is ill-suited for offering proper services to the new arrivals, many arriving with few possessions or resources.
Council members questioned whether the Adams administration plans run afoul of a court mandate that the city provide adequate housing to those experiencing homelessness. The New York Post reported Friday the city is close to finalizing a deal to temporarily house migrants on a cruise ship before they enter the city’s shelter system for the homeless, a contingency the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless say they oppose.
“No amount of legal gymnastics can justify what’s happening here,” said Councilmember Shahana Hanif, chair of the immigration committee. “The administration is carving out asylum seekers from this basic right.”
No amount of legal gymnastics can justify what’s happening here. The administration is carving out asylum seekers from this basic right.
Administration officials disagreed.
Iscol, whose Office of Emergency Management is overseeing the so-called “Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers,” argued the court’s shelter mandate for the homeless doesn’t apply because the emergency relief centers are distinct from the system that serves the homeless. Even then, Iscol said, the relief centers would meet some of the basic standards mandated by the courts, such as providing clean linens, one shower stall for every 15 people, and a place for the asylum seekers to lock up valuables.
But Iscol was unsure if other standards would be met, including if the beds would be at least 30 inches wide and 3 feet apart, per city rules for shelters.
The centers will serve as a brief early stop for asylum seekers, who would remain there for no more than four days, according to the administration. The newcomers would receive food, medical care, and other humanitarian aid. They also would receive help securing longer-term shelter, or travel assistance to other destinations.
Officials said nearly a fifth of new arrivals opt to leave the city.
“Whether it's to a family member or into our shelter, we'll get you there that day. We'll get you there the following day,” said Dr. Ted Long, senior vice president of Ambulatory Care and Population Health at New York City Health and Hospitals, one of the agencies helping run the Orchard Beach facility.
He added: “Our goal is to figure out where you want to go and do everything in our power to help you to get there.”
Sent from the South
More than 15,000 asylum seekers have arrived in the city in recent months, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, joined recently by Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, have been busing or flying asylum seekers to Democrat-run cities, to draw attention to border issues, and themselves. Both are mentioned as possible GOP rivals for the White House in 2024.
Their actions, described as a “political stunt” by critics, have overwhelmed intake centers for the city’s shelter system and contributed to a 30% rise in the shelter population in the last six months, according to Molly Park, first deputy commissioner of the city Department of Homeless Services. To handle the influx, she said, the city has opened 39 emergency shelters since June, mostly in hotels, leading to a “significant increase” in her agency’s budget.
The Orchard Beach facility is intended for single adults, but Iscol stopped short of promising that relief centers would not house families with young children in communal housing. Legal Aid attorneys say doing so could violate local and state shelter regulations.
Iscol said the city is “100% committed” to giving families their own private dwellings.
When pressed about potential violations, he frequently referred to the situation as an “unprecedented humanitarian crisis.” At one point, Iscol added: “There is a lot that we don't know, and there's a lot that we're gonna learn, and there are gonna be things that we have to adjust on the fly based on a lot of things that are outside of our control.”
South American cuisine
The Orchard Beach facility, Iscol said, would be "safe, secure, climate controlled,” drilled a few feet into the ground, and built to withstand inclement weather and 90 mph winds. In case of a hurricane, he said, asylum seekers would be evacuated – along with the 500,000 to 1 million other nearby residents. He said the city is setting up “tiger dams,” flexible tubes,” to prevent tidal flooding from the beach. Asylum seekers would also have access to recreation rooms and a dining hall with South American cuisine and multiple options, Long added — addressing a common complaint, according to Councilmember Gale Brewer.
"The Mexican food is too spicy. They want Venezuelan food," she said. "I'm not kidding.”
Long also promised bilingual staff and interpretation services, and said staff would be trained in mental health first aid and trauma-informed care.
There is a lot that we don't know, and there's a lot that we're gonna learn, and there are gonna be things that we have to adjust on the fly based on a lot of things that are outside of our control.
The Orchard Beach center — hard to reach by public transit — will provide shuttle vans to long-term shelters and transportation to the nearby 6 subway line, Iscol said. The city Department of Homeless Services also plans to open a new intake center for the city’s homeless shelter system specifically for asylum seekers. Currently, the migrants, along with all of the city’s homeless, must go to intake centers across the city.
The center is intended to be temporary and will eventually be moved elsewhere, Iscol said.
City council members complained that the administration moved forward with the plan with little input from local elected officials, advocates, and other people impacted.
When asked if Bronx elected officials and community groups were notified of the Orchard Beach location choice, Iscol said “we spoke to them the day of” the decision was reached. He promised to loop others in sooner as more facilities are built.
Under questioning from Hanif, Iscol also said he wasn’t aware that the Texas-based contractor hired to help staff the Orchard Beach center, SLSCO, had won hundreds of millions of dollars to help build and replace the U.S.-Mexico border wall, as reported by Politico. The company was chosen under an emergency contract process, and has helped set up temporary coronavirus hospitals and vaccination centers across the city, Iscol said.
Politico reported that SLSCO was hired to build the Orchard Beach center, attributing the information to Hanif. But Iscol said that wasn’t true: another company was hired for construction.
The city paid SLSCO tens of millions of dollars to help build and staff two temporary COVID-19 hospitals that shuttered after seeing few or no patients. Meanwhile in Missouri, their $30 million no-bid emergency contract to help staff struggling hospitals last summer was marked with high costs and no-shows, according to a Missouri Independent report.
"I'm not happy about it,” Iscol said of the border wall revelations. “But that's the nature of dealing with an emergency.”