Trying to Find Places for Asylum Seekers in New York City’s Homeless Shelters

A few months ago, immigrants’-rights organizations in New York City began receiving curious legal documents in the mail. The documents requested that the groups send lawyers to immigration hearings on behalf of clients whom they had never heard of before. Soon, large numbers of people began showing up at the organizations’s offices in the city. Many of these people were Venezuelan, fleeing political repression and economic turmoil, and had presented themselves at ports of entry at the southern border just days earlier. After entering the United States, they were put on buses, which had taken them to New York City. Many of them knew no one in New York, and had nowhere else to turn.

Advocates were not sure how those migrants arrived at their doors, but around that same time Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, was sending busloads of migrants to Washington, D.C. After New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, criticized the buses as a political stunt, Abbott announced that he would begin sending buses of migrants to New York City as well. Since the beginning of August, these buses have been arriving regularly at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, in Manhattan.

New York City is novel among American cities for having established a legal right to shelter. Every night, the city must provide a bed for anyone who needs one. At the Port Authority, many migrants have stepped off the buses surprised to find themselves in New York: some didn’t know where they were being sent, while others had thought they were on their way to an entirely different place. Now that they’re here, and have nowhere else to go, they are being directed to local homeless shelters, which are already under an enormous strain. (Adams has called on the federal government to send more resources to New York City, in order to address the influx.) Underfunded, politically neglected, and overcrowded, the shelter system has been struggling for years to cope with the city’s growing housing and affordability crisis. People attempting to exercise their right to shelter face a maze of bureaucracy and potentially dangerous living conditions. The city’s main intake shelters for single adult men, where men must stay until the city can find a bed for them at a longer-term facility, are notoriously awful. Migrants crossing the border and entering New York City’s shelter system are potentially trading one odyssey for another.

On Thursday, I called Murad Awawdeh, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, which is among the oldest and largest immigrants’-rights organizations in the country. Lately, he has spent much of his time at the Port Authority, as part of an effort mounted by community-based organizations, mutual-aid groups, and the city to create an ad-hoc welcome center for the new arrivals. The support these asylum seekers were receiving earlier in the summer, when this wave of migration first appeared on the city’s radar, was chaotic and uneven. Things have since improved, Awawdeh said. But the situation at the Port Authority has also become national news, and Awawdeh is conscious of how stories and images coming out of the bus station are being used to stir up bigotry and xenophobia. “Just to be clear, we’re not condemning Governor Abbott for bussing people to New York City,” he said. “We’ve condemned him for busing people under misleading information to places that they do not want to go to. For treating people inhumanely. That is what we are condemning. New York City is and will always be a welcoming city. But he’s using people in this moment, in such a horrific way.”

Awawdeh spoke to me at length about what he’s seen the past few weeks. His account has been condensed and edited for clarity.

“A few weeks after Governor Abbott started sending asylum seekers to Washington, D.C., we and other organizations in New York City started to receive Notices to Appear—which are immigration-hearing notices—for people who we did not know or represent. After the first couple, we were, like, ‘This is odd, why is this happening?’ Then by early to mid-June we started to receive people in our office, saying that they had come up from the southern border and were told by border officials that we would provide them with shelter services and care. People were being dropped off by [commercial] buses in random places in the city.

“We do not provide services in our offices. We never do that here. We do it in the community. In July, we started asking other organizations if they’d been seeing this happen and a few said, ‘Yeah, we’ve been getting a ton of Notices to Appear, and we’ve been getting tons of people coming to our offices.’ The mayor’s office said that they were aware of an increase of asylum seekers in the shelter system. At first, they were saying that the increase in the homeless population was because of this population, and we were, like, ‘That’s impossible’—we’ve had a twenty-year housing crisis, and COVID really exacerbated socioeconomic issues for communities across the city. We had an emergency meeting with the city. We wanted to have a conversation about triaging the situation, knowing that the capacity in the shelters was dwindling. We asked for an emergency expansion of shelter capacity, as well as a welcome center that would bring together community-based organizations and city agencies to provide services and care to people coming into the city. Two weeks later, the city comptroller granted the Mayor an emergency-procurement declaration, which allowed him to go out and expand the shelter system—using hotels and other providers who may have their own spaces.

“The way we found out about the first bus coming to New York City directly from Texas was through a press release that Governor Abbott sent out. Folks were caught off guard. The first bus came on a Friday. Two more buses came on Sunday. We knew that people were coming here with just the clothes on their backs, their immigration paperwork, and nothing else. We had already been putting together care packages to support people when they got to our office, to give them some basic essentials: food, P.P.E., service guides, socks, undergarments, female-hygiene kits, baby kits. We showed up on that Sunday with our care packages. The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs had organized other groups. There were some volunteers. There were mutual-aid groups there. About fifteen people. And we quickly realized that there is no infrastructure, especially at a bus station, to do this work. We started thinking about how this work can happen in a more structured way.

“This has been a hugely collaborative effort, which is amazing. It’s also been some of the most gut-wrenching work I’ve done in my life. We’ve seen a young girl get off a bus sick, and her mom not knowing what’s wrong, thinking she might be dehydrated—turns out she was diabetic and needed insulin. We’ve seen a young man get off the bus having chest issues—there’s doctors who are with us who check out whoever needs medical attention. There’s a lawyer there for legal consults. Today, we anticipated potentially three buses and then I think five or six showed up. A mother got off the bus with a newborn baby. I just thought she was carrying a blanket, because the baby was so small. Six days old. Almost three days they were on a bus. So half the baby’s life was spent on a bus.

“Historically, when folks have migrated to New York City, there’s always been a familial, friend, or community connection who people are able to stay with. The big difference here is that folks don’t. They need support and access to shelter and housing right now. I was thinking about this the other day. My family, when they got here, stayed with a relative. And that relative, when they got here, had stayed with another relative. And I don’t remember who the first person was in that chain. Hopefully, these folks, who are new New Yorkers, are able to be the first for other people, right? That is the goal here. But it’s a work in progress, and the uniqueness of the situation is that housing right now is being provided by the emergency-shelter system.

“Folks have travelled three thousand miles, on foot in some cases, to the southern border. They’ve presented themselves at a port of entry, asked for asylum—which is their legal right—and got to Texas. Texas has decided to misinform people that these buses are going to take them where they need to go, and are having them sign waivers of liability. And when they get here, they’re, like, ‘I wanted to go to San Antonio.’ ‘I wanted to go to Washington State.’ One guy, his entire family was in San Antonio, and he was, like, ‘I didn’t want to come here.’ I would say about thirty to forty per cent of folks who are coming to New York City on the bus from Texas do not want to be in New York City. When they get here, they need support, to get back to Texas, or Louisiana, or Ohio, or Washington State, or Oregon, or Wisconsin.

“Folks get off the bus, and they’re welcomed into the Port Authority. People clapping for them, screaming welcome. There’s an intake process right there. They’re asked questions. What’s your name? Are you staying in New York City? Do you have a connection here or do you need shelter? There’s a pretty good system of providing folks with medical care if they need it, legal counsel if they want it, and our care packages. It’s not the best-oiled machine, but it’s getting there. After we figure out where people are going, we put families together, we put single men together, and we put single women together. We try to figure out their transportation. For people staying in shelters, there’s intake facilities for families, women, and men that are all separate. The family intake facilities, we had some early issues—you have to prove you’re a family, but people were showing up with nothing but the clothes on their backs and immigration-court papers.

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