the city

‘Where Are We Going to Put People?’

New York’s shelters were already at a breaking point. Officials are scrambling to find beds for asylum seekers.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

All of the 200 people who work for the New York City Office of Emergency Management are divided into three teams, and one team is on call at any given moment for any manner of disaster that may suddenly befall the city — a terrorist attack, a terrible storm, a building collapse. One night earlier this month, Zach Iscol, the city’s director of emergency management, was at home on the Upper East Side, putting his kids to bed when the phone rang. It was from one of the on-call teams, saying that a new and unexpected busload of asylum seekers had arrived at the Port Authority.

Busloads of migrants had been arriving for months, spiking after May 11 and the expiration of Title 42, the federal directive that kept asylum seekers at bay when COVID was still considered a national health emergency. New York, which alone among American cities has a right-to-shelter law that guarantees a bed for a night to everyone who needs one, had been scrambling to find placement for the hundreds of people arriving every day. The city’s existing, inadequate and woefully underfunded shelter system had long ago been exhausted by not just migrants but a record number of native New Yorkers, and so members of the Adams administration had been scrambling to jury-rig alternatives — Orchard Beach, and when that caused an uproar, a shuttered correctional facility on Rikers Island, and when that caused one too, half-empty hotels or any building with empty square footage, such as midtown office buildings left dark since commuters stopped coming to midtown.

But now they were at last out of options. There were no buildings or beds left, yet still people were coming, with the shelter system in danger of collapse. And the only sites that the city could use were ones it owns, so nothing belonging to the state, the federal government, or private landlords was on offer.

A police chief on the call mentioned that there was a police-academy facility in Murray Hill sitting empty. By midnight, Iscol was there, and by 1:30 in the morning, Mayor Eric Adams had shown up. It was, by chance, the police academy where he trained. It was, he said, smaller than he remembered, and he pointed them to a room upstairs that the OEM staffers hadn’t gotten to yet: a cafeteria, a place where they might be able to cram a few more cots.

And so it has gone for the past several weeks in New York City, and so it will likely will continue for the foreseeable future, a day-by-day, hour-by-hour scramble to meet a human catastrophe that is the product of a dozen global and national circumstances but is landing here. There is no end in sight to what could become the defining crisis of Adams’s first term in office. People involved in dealing with the crush of new arrivals coming to the city — altogether numbering nearly 70,000, larger than the city of Sante Fe or Palo Alto, few of whom speak English and all of whom are prohibited from working — talk about it as if it were a natural disaster like a hurricane, but one that never stops to allow for cleanup and just keeps hammering the shore.

Senior administration officials keep a massive Airtable document that includes a list of potential sites and their attributes: who owns them, how many can sleep there, etc. A number of sites that city officials thought were theirs turned out to have been merely leased from the state or federal government. Some landlords see a way to make a quick buck off their vacant properties, volunteering their buildings only to have their insurance companies refuse to indemnify them. There need to be sites for single men and women and sites for families. Places for city aid workers to operate out of in order to help migrants navigate the maze of asylum bureaucracy and find a better place to live. Proximity to public transportation is helpful. Last year, administration officials looked into utilizing the Brooklyn cruise-ship terminal but couldn’t get access to it because it was the middle of cruise season. They tried to set up a tent city in Orchard Beach but eventually realized the time and money required to mitigate the flooding that occurred there meant it wasn’t worth it. They tried Randall’s Island next, but that meant building everything from scratch — generators, HVAC, plumbing, laundry, kitchens — at a cost of $16 million by one estimation, to be borne with almost no help from the federal government. They tried to put asylum seekers in a high-school gymnasium that was unused because the school didn’t have a gym teacher, but after a parent uproar, they backed down.

“There is no good place to be doing this,” Iscol said. “There’s just not. Every single site we go to I can tell you all the problems. It’s a five-dimensional puzzle you’re solving for. You’re solving for transportation, you’re solving for community needs, you’re solving for economic impact. You’re solving for infrastructure, HVAC systems. You go into one site that seems ideal — say, a huge warehouse that hasn’t been used — and the water is not turned on, and you think you just have to turn the water on, but the water hasn’t been turned on since 2019 and suddenly there’s leaks everywhere.”

Even though the crush of migrants at the border has been less than was expected after the expiration of Title 42, the tide of people coming to the city has increased. City officials say they are seeing asylum seekers coming to New York not from the border but from elsewhere in the country, having heard about the city’s guarantee of shelter and the services available to them.

Earlier this month, Camille Joseph Varlack, the mayor’s chief of staff, wrote on a Sunday night to the head of every city agency that by Monday evening, they needed to present a list of sites that could be repurposed for migrants. City Council members have been asked to scour their district for possibilities. A member of the FDNY brass was driving past a shuttered Toys ’R’ Us off the Belt Parkway and that got added to the list of potential sites.

Despite criticism that the administration was ill-prepared for this inevitability, and even though the city’s housing czar abruptly resigned this week, inside City Hall, the past few weeks have been viewed as a success. More than 150 sites have been found over the past year, including 120 hotels. Beyond what they see on the news, few New Yorkers have likely even noticed.

“There are always so many things going on in New York City, you can tell people we are in this crisis and most of them react like, ‘What are you talking about? It’s Tuesday, everything is fine,’” said Anne Williams-Isom, the deputy mayor for health and human services. “I am trying to see how to say this without patting myself on the back, but to have 65,000 people come into a system and not have anybody sleep on the streets, that doesn’t happen by happenstance; it happens day by day. What are the projections? Where are we going to put people? What’s the staffing like? How do we make sure it gets done? What are the numbers? The mayor has been quite clear that this is part of who we are and our administration is going to have to deal with crises. This won’t be the only one. And we have to make sure that the city runs in the way that it needs to run.”

It is not hard to see in the midst of all of this a mayor who is not letting a crisis go to waste. Eric Adams came into office promising to cut through some of the city’s sclerotic bureaucracy, and he has used the occasion to ask the courts to suspend the right-to-shelter law and to do away with zoning laws that prevented new shelters from being built. He has tried to convert office buildings and hotels into housing but been largely stymied; now, with thousands of migrants moving into those spaces anyway, he may finally get his wish.

Still, this is a crisis that is bound to get worse. A report from the city’s Office of Management and Budget said that the crisis would cost the city a total of $4.2 billion just by next year, the rough equivalent of building 70 new schools. Last week, the city announced a deal to reopen the Roosevelt, a grand, century-old hotel that has been dark since 2020, housing upwards of 200 migrant families there at just over $200 a night, a cost paid by the city. New arrivals are given a COVID shot and any other vaccinations they may lack, then meet with caseworkers who try to get them on their way, connecting them with lawyers who can help navigate their asylum case and with relatives they may barely know who have stable housing elsewhere in the country. Nearly 40 percent of those who have come into this system have moved out, but the city is preparing for this new population to mostly settle in the city.

“I am as anxious now as I have ever been since this started,” said Brendan McGuire, the chief counsel to the mayor. “I would have thought that almost a full year into this, there would be some kind of intervention outside the city, some kind of governmental plan from Washington, but there isn’t. We are just out here on our own.”

Beyond appealing to the federal government for money and to direct migrants elsewhere, the city is seeking help from the state and from other municipalities, even promising to pay those cities for the costs incurred. Eventually, though, we are going to run out of room, perhaps within the next month. There will be no more buildings, no more beds, no space for anyone, and the system will finally be breached, our capacity to handle this crisis finally overwhelmed. Williams-Isom wouldn’t say when that day would come, or what it would look like, or what would happen next. She only knew that unless something is done, it is coming, for sure.

The Scramble to House Our Busloads of Migrants