Days after crews erected airplane hangar-sized tents in a parking lot in The Bronx, a weekend of downpours brought several inches of rain to the site, flooding an area that planned to temporarily house hundreds of recently arrived migrants.
New York City’s first Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center – intended to support thousands of people seeking asylum in the US, including hundreds bused to the city by Texas Governor Greg Abbott – will instead open on another parking lot on Randall’s Island in the East River.
The plan under Mayor Eric Adams aims to ease the burden on the city’s already-strained shelter system, while addressing what he has called a “humanitarian crisis” fuelled by Republican governors like Abbott and Florida’s Ron DeSantis sending recently arrived migrants – most of whom have fled violence and political and economic collapse in South and Central America before crossing the US-Mexico border – to Democrat-led cities hundreds of miles away.
But immigration advocates, civil rights groups and city leaders say they’ve been ignored in the process, while repeatedly warning that the plan violates the city’s right-to-shelter mandate, excludes families, and risks isolating vulnerable people from critical services.
“We’ve surpassed well over 15,000 asylum seekers,” New York City Council member Shahana Hanif told The Independent. “For me, it’s been about ensuring and guaranteeing a compassionate and humane humanitarian response from our city.”
To build the tents, the city has hired Texas-based firm SLSCO, which has built field hospitals to treat Covid-19 patients and rehabilitated homes in Puerto Rico damaged by hurricanes.
The company also received lucrative government contracts to build a portion of Donald Trump’s wall on the US-Mexico border.
Migrants have reportedly said that the shelters also resemble notorious “icebox” detention centres, freezing and cramped facilities used by federal law enforcement along the US-Mexico border.
“We don’t have to have an undignified response, where we are one of the wealthiest cities, and here we are trying to not live according to our values,” council member Hanif told The Independent.
“We should not have companies that have used [public] dollars to build walls,” she said. “It’s a contradiction – how are we working to build trust? This was just another sort of example of the administration’s incompetence and like lack of alignment with immigrant justice principles.”
Orchard Beach migrant tent encampment is flooded after .55” of rain in 24 hrs. SLSCO, the Texas-based contractor chosen by city for site is the same contractor used by Trump to build the border wall. Migrants say the site build is identical to the “Icebox” TX detention center pic.twitter.com/w6Y5K5ivZy
— South Bronx Mutual Aid (@SBXMutualAid) October 1, 2022
Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said in a statement that rights groups have repeatedly asked the city to be involved with the shelter plans, “but keep getting rebuffed.”
“That’s how we ended up here with a contractor who built the southern border wall, and one proposed site that has already flooded,” he said.
The Independent has requested comment from the company.
The original site for the tent shelter was set to house up to 1,000 people for up to three nights.
The new site on Randall’s Island in a parking lot south of the Icahn Stadium will hold up to 500 people.
That lot is in a “high risk” flood zone, according to the city’s official flood maps.
A description of the plans from the Adams administration said the structures will be “expertly designed” and “climate controlled”. Flexible barriers will also be deployed to prevent flooding.
During a briefing on 4 October, Mayor Adams said he has communicated with the White House, state and federal agencies and the mayors of Washington DC and Chicago, where Governor Abbott has also sent hundreds of migrants.
“I just find it ironic that buses [are] coming to cities with Black mayors – that’s not lost on me,” Mayor Adams said on Tuesday.
“We’re going to use the National Guard, we’re going to use our medical facilities, we’re going to use everything that’s possible so we can navigate ourselves out of the crisis that we’re facing,” he said. “The far right is doing the wrong thing and the far left is doing nothing … Everyone should be all hands on deck.”
New York is the only state in the country that is legally bound to a “right to shelter” mandate for anyone who needs it.
Years-long legal challenges, court rulings and city measures have expanded that access, but legal aid groups, civil rights advocates and city officials have warned that the temporary tent shelters could violate that mandate, a more than 40-year-old policy that has established minimum standards for what a shelter must provide.
More than 52,000 people are living in New York City shelters on a given night, according to Coalition for the Homeless, while thousands of others live in other shelters, on the streets and in subway stations and trains.
The organisation’s 2022 report examining the state of homelessness in the city underscored officials’ “continued failure to address the underlying causes” of the crisis, including a lack of investment in affordable housing that has left thousands of households with annual incomes below $30,000 at risk of homelessness while paying more than half of their incomes on rent.
Meanwhile, migrant families in the city’s shelter system – who are not eligible for government assistance – are going hungry.
Under the shelter mandate, people seeking shelter can request housing at Department of Homeless Services intake centres, after which the city must promptly provide that shelter.
But the temporary tent facilities will instead will be operated by the New York City Emergency Management and the Health + Hospitals Corp.
Ms Hanif, who chairs the council’s Committee on Immigration, fears the tent shelters are “circumventing” the right-to-shelter mandate.
“Are we doing everything in our power to fill every single bed in shelters?” she told The Independent.
“I mean, there are tangible policy items and budgetary needs that can be filled immediately,” according to Ms Hanif, pointing to new regulatory framework for basement-level units and an expansion of a housing voucher programme, which has waiting lists that are often months or years long.
“We’re at very risky territory here,” she said. “Moving it to another beach, another sort of island that is equally prone to flooding, and which is also a transit desert, remains to be both an operational and moral failure.”
Last month, the city council’s Committee on Immigration held a hearing to press the administration for details about the plan.
Emergency Management commissioner Zach Iscol tol the committee that the plans “are set up not to replace the shelter system but to give us the time and space to do that operation correctly.”
“To make sure that we are figuring out what the needs of people are,” he said. “To welcome them with a shower, a warm meal, meet their immediate medical needs and then figure out what the next steps for them are.”
She rejected characterisations that she was “ripping” the Adams administration with her remarks.
“I wasn’t ripping anyone,” she said on Twitter. “The people who actually need to get ripped are Abbott [and] DeSantis, who did this while the federal [government] funds their facilities. Despite that I believe we can get to a better solution together, and we’re exploring ways to find the resources to make it happen.”
She suggested that there should be a more immediate process to allow people seeking asylum to get work authorizations “so they can get on their feet [and] start providing for themselves and their kids” rather than be forced to move across the US.
“Sadly, too many [politicians] are focused on punishing refugees instead of letting them contribute,” she said.
Mr Awawdeh with the New York Immigration Coalition accused the administration of trying to “subvert” the state’s right-to-shelter mandate with a “poorly conceived plan to hide asylum seekers in relief camps in remote areas of New York that are prone to flooding.”
“Despite the availability of underutilized buildings that are more accessible to mass transit and the social service needs of asylum seekers, the city continues to remain stubbornly committed to the development of relief camps across the five boroughs,” he said in a statement.
With a more permanent solution, the encampments put people seeking asylum in harm’s way after being “treated like pawns in a political game,” Mr Awawdeh said.
A joint statement from the Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless urged the city to seek other solutions “instead of tent cities, where our clients will be isolated, vulnerable to extreme weather, and far from public transportation and other critical services.”
“Right now, this administration can unilaterally remove the many bureaucratic barriers that plague its housing voucher process to transition more homeless New Yorkers from shelters into safe, permanent housing,” according to the groups.
Instead, the flooding at the initial Orchard Beach location in The Bronx “should serve as a canary in a coal mine” for the “wrongheaded” tent shelter plan, according to the groups.
Mayor Adams has repeatedly dismissed concerns that the city is violating that mandate, insisting that the city’s overburdened and under-supported shelter system and the daily arrival of hundreds of people seeking asylum in the US are separate crises.
“Some people look at things and always find the negative. I look towards the positive,” he told reporters on 4 October. “There’s a lot of pivoting and shifting that will take place … We’re going to ensure safety [and] the support that no one else in the country is doing.”