Two male asylum seekers entered New York City’s tent encampment on Randall’s Island early Wednesday, becoming the first new arrivals at the temporary shelter.

Wearing jeans, jackets and sporting shoes, and each toting a bag, the pair shook hands with city Emergency Management Commissioner Zachary Iscol before going inside the sprawling complex.

The city declined to say how many asylum seekers entered the 84,400-square-foot facility on opening day, but many more migrants are expected to follow. The encampment features row after row of cots and can accommodate 500 beds initially, and ultimately up to 1,000.

Two buses of asylum seekers, mostly families, arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal early Wednesday, said Ilze Thielmann, an organizer of the advocacy group Team TLC stationed there. But only single men will stay on Randall’s Island; the city is accommodating families at the Row Hotel in Midtown and still looking into other options for single women.

The shelter opening marks a new milestone in what Mayor Eric Adams has branded a crisis – a months-long, unrelenting influx of asylum seekers, mostly from Central and South American, dispatched to New York by border states, mostly from Texas.

The city has billed the Randall’s Island camp as a waystation where the migrants can rest, receive humanitarian aid, and assistance getting to their next destination, be it longer-term housing in the city’s traditional shelter system for the homeless, or transportation to another city.

But the facility – officially a “Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center” - is also a lightning rod for critics who say the city should be doing more to help vulnerable people. More than 19,000 asylum seekers have streamed into the city in recent months. Some have moved in with friends, family and volunteers, or relocated to other cities.

The vast majority, however, have been absorbed into the city’s overflowing traditional shelter system.

The Adams administration has failed in its duties to protect and integrate the newest arrivals to our city. Mayor Adams has compromised New York City’s status as a beacon of hope.
Murad Awawdeh, executive director of New York Immigration Coalition

A 'stain' on the city

Murad Awawdeh, executive director of New York Immigration Coalition, referred to the Randall’s Island encampment as “dangerous” and a “stain” on the city’s history of welcoming immigrants.

“The Adams administration has failed in its duties to protect and integrate the newest arrivals to our city.” he said in a statement. “Mayor Adams has compromised New York City’s status as a beacon of hope."

With the shelter system operating at or near capacity and available hotel space shrinking, two officials who toured the barrack-style tent shelter on Randall’s Island said the city is doing its best to provide housing for the asylum seekers.

“This is certainly not ideal, but we are running out of options,” said Borough President Mark Levine.

Rows of cots inside the encampment on Randall's Island where SLSCO is under contract to provide services to asylum seekers.

Levine said officials inside Adams’ administration told him that it’s getting harder to find hotels that are willing to rent out large blocks of rooms to house the migrants. The city had already rented space in roughly 40 hotels to use as an emergency shelter to house migrants.

“Because tourism is coming back and because many hotels are already being used by the city, there's less and less open space, which also, by the way, means that the price that they're demanding goes up and up and up,” said Levine.

City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera of Lower Manhattan said migrants are being bused here without any coordination and the city is triaging.

“Given that this is an emergency crisis, I understand why we have resorted to building these structures,” Rivera said. “This is sort of this unprecedented influx of people with high needs and they're immediate.”

'No limits' on stays?

Adams has previously said overnight stays would range from one to four days, but Ted Long, a senior vice president at NYC Health + Hospitals, which helps run the site, told reporters Tuesday there are “no limits” to how long people can stay.

Laundry machines stacked atop each other in a trailer -- part of the new encampment for asylum seekers on Randall's Island.near the new living quarters.

The two men were transported to Randall’s Island by van. No personal information about the men was released, including their nations of origin.

The first room they entered features white plastic tables – part of an intake area that includes testing for COVID-19 and other diseases. The main building includes a room with case workers helping with transportation logistics; a cafeteria; a recreation room with TVs, games, and phones.

Also on site were laundry facilities, bathroom trailers and separate sleeping quarters with rows of green cots.

Outside the tents on a chilly Wednesday morning, generators hummed and water purification, fuel, and supplies trucks funneled in and out of the parking lot sectioned off with metal gates and orange traffic cones. Members of the media weren’t allowed inside.

Citing concerns about transit accessibility and inclement weather, some community groups continue to decry the decision to house asylum seekers in outdoor encampments. Elected officials have previously suggested vacant hotels, and removing bureaucratic barriers keeping shelter residents from transitioning to permanent housing.

When asked why the city has opted for an outdoor tent encampment on Randall’s Island instead of other indoor options, Iscol said the city lacks indoor space large enough to accommodate the asylum seekers expected to come.