As New York City Struggles to House Migrants, Local Advocates Cry Foul

Aug 17, 2023
2:30 PM

Migrants sit in a queue outside of the Roosevelt Hotel that is being used by the city as temporary housing, Monday, July 31, 2023, in New York City. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Every morning for the past month, Leandra and her husband Albert have left the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan to trek around the city looking for work. They’ve visited restaurants, supermarkets and convenience stores in Queens and the Bronx, hoping to wash dishes or mop floors in exchange for a few dollars. So far, their outings have been largely unsuccessful.

“We get asked for our work permits everywhere,” said Leandra, a slender 28-year-old with taped-up glasses and a laugh that extends to her eyes. “Until we get those, we can’t do anything here.”

Leandra, Albert and their two daughters are among the thousands of Venezuelans who’ve fled poverty and political turmoil in their country to seek asylum in the U.S. They’re thankful to be staying at the Roosevelt, a century-old hotel that has become a shelter and processing center for migrants arriving in New York City.

“We have our own room with beds and a fridge,” Leandra explained. “Other people are much worse off.”

New York differs from other U.S. cities in that it is required to provide shelter to anyone who asks for it. But that obligation has been tested this year as migrants continue arriving from the southern border, overwhelming the city’s shelter system and prompting officials to use hotels, recreation centers and even tents as emergency housing.

The situation appeared to reach a breaking point this month when hundreds of migrants were discovered sleeping outside the Roosevelt, generating widespread outrage and calls for legal action. Though the city found temporary accommodations for the new arrivals within a week, officials say housing options will only grow scarcer as more migrants arrive.

The sight of other migrants sprawled next to the hotel troubled Leandra, who recalled the many nights she spent in parks and village squares during her harrowing journey to the U.S.

“We’re all human beings,” she said. “No one should have to sleep on the street.”

A Right to Shelter

More than 100,000 migrants have come to New York City since the spring of 2022, according to the latest official data. Many have been flown or bussed in from the U.S.-Mexico border, which saw a record number of undocumented crossings last year.

Thousands of asylum seekers have also traveled to northern cities like Chicago and Denver, putting a major strain on their social safety nets.

“Our system is over capacity,” a Chicago official said in May, adding that the situation will only worsen as the year progresses.

As New York’s shelter population continues to grow, Mayor Eric Adams has shifted his messaging and policies around incoming asylum seekers. Earlier this summer, his administration handed out fliers along the border discouraging migrants from traveling to New York, warning that there’s “no guarantee” they will find housing or services in the city.

The administration has also rerouted some migrants to nearby counties upstate, drawing pushback from their local officials.

“We are past our breaking point,” Adams said during a public address last week. “New Yorkers’ compassion may be limitless, but our resources are not.”

In keeping with that sentiment, the mayor has imposed a 60-day cap on shelter stays for single adult migrants—a move he says will free up badly needed space for children and families. Since the policy was announced in late July, approximately 1,400 asylum seekers have been notified that they’ll have to leave their shelter in 60 days, Documented reported this week.

Local activists have blasted the rule as discriminatory and dangerous, noting the city lacks a clear strategy for keeping migrants off the street once the 60 days are over.

“We’re talking about asylum seekers and refugees,” said Ariadna Phillips, a bilingual educator and community organizer. “If anything, there should be an understanding that refugees, for a host of reasons, are going to require additional support to be able to restabilize.”

Phillips is the founder of South Bronx Mutual Aid, an organization supporting underserved New Yorkers through a growing network of volunteers and grassroots fundraising. Members have been assisting asylum seekers in the city since last summer, connecting them with food, medical care and other resources.

The long line of migrants sleeping outside the Roosevelt Hotel represents a clear violation of New York City’s “right-to-shelter” law, Phillips told Latino Rebels. She and other activists have dismissed the mayor’s claims that there is no room left in city shelters, arguing that officials deliberately left people outdoors to discourage new migrants from coming.

“They created a disaster in front of the Roosevelt… as a political stunt,” Phillips said, highlighting the speed with which the area was cleared once advocacy groups threatened legal action.

The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its handling of the crowd outside the Roosevelt.

A Growing Housing Crisis

Adams has repeatedly called for a federal intervention to reduce the flow of migrants into the city, arguing that New York shouldn’t have to bear the weight of a “national issue.” He has requested more federal funds to offset the costs of caring for migrants and lobbied for other cities to take in asylum seekers. In April, Adams said President Joe Biden had “failed” New York City by withholding additional support.

Activists counter that Adams is failing asylum seekers by doubling down on past mistakes. Earlier this month, the city announced plans to open a tent complex for migrants on Randall’s Island, a remote stretch of land to the east of Manhattan. A previous migrant encampment on the island was shuttered last fall amid reports of packed sleeping quarters and other hazardous conditions.

“They’re just throwing things against the wall,” Phillips said of the administration’s strategy for housing migrants. “I don’t doubt that this is a massive undertaking. But did we not learn how unsafe and inhumane these (types of shelters) are?”

Phillips and other organizers have been clamoring for Adams to steer more resources toward long-term housing, noting this will ease some of the pressure on the city’s overburdened shelter system. Specifically, they’ve called on the administration to expedite the process through which shelter residents can transition to permanent housing.

“I would call this a housing crisis, not a migration crisis,” said Yajaira Saavedra, an Indigenous activist and the co-owner of La Morada, a restaurant and mutual aid kitchen that has provided hundreds of meals to asylum seekers at local shelters. She cites the many apartment units that remain empty across the city due to soaring rent costs and bureaucratic red tape.

Back at the Roosevelt Hotel, Leandra and Albert remain desperate to find jobs so they can leave their temporary residence and start their new lives in the United States Leandra’s cousin recently received a 60-day eviction notice at a nearby shelter, and she worries support services for migrant families could be curtailed in the coming months.

That possibility motivates her to continue searching for work opportunities on a daily basis.

“We didn’t come all this way to lay around in a hotel,” she said. “I want to work to help my family.”


Illan Martin Ireland is a summer correspondent at Futuro Media and a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.