Under the FDR Drive in midtown Manhattan, dozens of asylum seekers gathered under the parkway last Thursday, waiting for a mobile soup kitchen to arrive.

Most of them have recently arrived in the city and are living in the city’s homeless shelter system. But they say shelter food is largely inedible so they have been gathering at this spot, not far from the city’s largest men’s shelter, every night to eat.

At the shelter, “the meat patties on the hamburgers are frozen, and they just put them between the bread and it's really, really horrible,” said Tony Palomares, a Venezuelan native who’s been living at the 30th Street Men’s Intake Shelter since arriving in New York from Colombia this summer.

Long before thousands of migrants began arriving in New York City this year, shelter residents have raised alarms about the food and safety issues inside the facilities. And the recent surge of asylum seekers is amplifying long-standing concerns about the shelter system, immigration and housing advocates say.

“A common concern that we've heard for years among shelter residents is that the food in shelters is of poor quality and insufficient portions, and that's also something that we have heard from the recent arrivals,” said Jacquelyn Simone, director of policy for the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless.

Since some shelters don’t have places for residents to cook, the shelters provide them with frozen meals that need to be heated in microwaves, Simone added.

Alexander, a 37-year-old migrant from Venezuela who’s also been living at the 30th Street Men’s Intake Shelter, said through a translator that he’s been throwing out most of the food he gets at the shelter.

“A lot of the food that they're getting is two, three, four days old,” said Alexander, who declined to provide his last name for fear of being kicked out of the facility. “They have no place to warm it.”

Instead, Alexander and Palomares have been coming each night to this spot for a warm meal, that on a chilly October night consisted of a meatball stew, a bagel, an orange, and milk.

For breakfast, the men go to another spot on 32nd Street, between First and Second avenues. Although free lunches are also offered at this location, the two usually go hungry and skip lunch so they can look for work instead.

A spokesperson for Department of Social Services said in a statement that all city shelter sites provide meals that comply with city food standards and that the agency is "conducting comprehensive surveys across shelter sites to make doubly sure that sites know how to access additional food if needed to meet demand."

"The health and safety of our clients are our top priorities, and as we have always done, we work to ensure that all clients across sites are receiving the same standard of services, security, and supports to help stabilize their lives," spokesperson Neha Sharma said in an email.

A volunteer hands out meals to unhoused, recently-arrived migrant people under the FDR in Manhattan.

An “exploding” demand

In recent weeks, the number of people waiting for the mobile soup kitchen under the FDR has exploded, said Juan De La Cruz, director of emergency relief services for the Coalition for the Homeless, which runs the soup kitchen.

“We've had as high as 140 people here,” he said. “That extra hundred-plus has been the migrants that have been coming.”

As of mid-October, more than 15,000 asylum seekers, including 4,400 children, have been living in city shelters, according to city stats presented to members of the City Council in closed meetings that were shared with Gothamist.

The sudden influx of migrants, many of whom are being bused to New York City from southern border states with hardline immigration practices in protest of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, prompted Mayor Eric Adams to declare a state of emergency last month.

The migrant crisis, Adams said, could cost the city as much as $1 billion and heavily strain resources.

As of Tuesday, 63,437 people were residing in city shelters, according to the daily census report from the Department of Homeless Services. The figure has routinely reached new highs in recent weeks.

The city spent close to $138 a day to house a single adult in a homeless shelter last fiscal year and $198 a day to house a family with children, according to the Mayor’s Management Report released in September. In 2021, the city spent roughly $3 billion on homeless services.

But even drinking water is hard to come by at the 30th Street Men’s Intake Shelter, Palomares and Alexander said.

The men said the only water fountain in the building that works well is on the third floor outside the cafeteria. One day in October, Palomares said he went to fill his water bottle, but a security guard stopped him.

“So he ended up having to come over here to the hospital just to fill his cup — his water bottle,” said De La Cruz.

Safety concerns persist

Access to food is not the only long-standing issue in shelters that migrants are encountering.

Violence is another concern that has been raised by some residents over the years, advocates said.

Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said he’s aware of at least two dozen asylum seekers living in city shelters who have been assaulted or threatened with violence.

“Some were threatened with violence, others with other threats and just feeling the sense of wanting to go somewhere where they were going to be safe,”Awawdeh said.

Many of the migrants who feared for their safety were transferred to other shelters, Awawdeh said.

Sharma, the DSS spokesperson, said there is no tolerance against any misconduct.

"Any such cases are immediately investigated and addressed," she said.

Niurka Melendez and her husband, Hector Arguinzones, founders of Venezuelans and Immigrants Aid, said she and her husband heard from a number of people about fights breaking out inside shelters causing a sense of unease among the new arrivals.

The couple’s organization has been holding events inside and outside shelters to assist the newly arrived migrants.

“Some have shared with us that they don't feel safe,” Melendez said. “There are spaces in which they feel quite insecure because of the behavior of other residents in that place.”

“A common concern that we've heard for years among shelter residents is that the food in shelters is of poor quality and insufficient portions, and that's also something that we have heard from the recent arrivals,” said Jacquelyn Simone, director of policy for the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless.