Additional reporting by Reuven Blau

After obtaining a queue number from the Department of Homeless Services’ family intake center in The Bronx, known as PATH, Natalia and Yohan stepped outside with their 5-year-old daughter, bought chicken wings and french fries at a nearby bodega, and munched on them in front of the city building. 

The family, who asked only to be identified by their first names, arrived in New York City six months ago, fleeing Colombia after a relative’s involvement with the wrong crowd landed him in prison and left Natalia and Yohan fearing for their own lives. 

The couple and their daughter live with four other members of their extended family, who also recently migrated to the country, at Natalia’s uncle’s one-bedroom apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens.

They’ve been unsuccessfully looking for their own apartment since arriving, while their request for asylum is pending. All the while, the uncle has lived in fear that he could lose his home for allowing an excessive number of people to live with him. 

“For us, it’s because we haven’t found a home,” Yohan said in Spanish, explaining why they were looking to enter a homeless shelter. “We have the money. But, more than that, we need papers.”

Now Natalia and Yohan, who work in cleaning and construction, are turning to the city’s homeless shelter system, arriving at the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing office with a stuffed duffel bag prepared to spend the night in one of the city’s shelters. They hope that the city, which is party to legal settlements establishing a right to shelter, will not only provide them with a temporary shelter but also eventually help them secure permanent housing. 

Asylum seekers have come into focus recently as Mayor Eric Adams has named them as the main force driving rising demand for beds inthe the city’s shelter system, and even accusing the governors of Arizona and Texas of sending them en masse to New York. (In fact, Govs. Doug Ducey and Greg Abbott had targeted Washington, D.C.)

On Monday, Adams declared an emergency allowing him to bypass the usual competitive bidding process so City Hall can hire a non-profit provider to run what he called an Asylum Seeker Service Referral Center. Social Services Commissioner Gary Jenkins stated that the city has been seeing 100 new applications a day, and claimed that 4,000 individuals seeking asylum had applied for city-run shelter beds since late May. 

That followed a letter declaring the emergency that Jenkins sent on July 29 to Comptroller Brad Lander and Corporation Counsel Sylvia Hinds-Radix, “based on recent trends in moving asylum-seeking families and individuals to the Northeastern United States, particularly the City of New York” and seeking those officials’ authorization for the city to open “one or more asylum seeker housing facilities.” 

But interviews at PATH suggest that it’s not just new arrivals who are turning to the city’s shelters after being directed to New York City by border authorities or aid groups.

The PATH family intake shelter in the South Bronx, Jan. 27, 2022. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Unknown numbers of those applying to the city’s shelter system have been New Yorkers for months or longer, living doubled or tripled up with friends or relatives while struggling to get a foothold in the city’s expensive housing market.

Scrambling for Rooms

On Tuesday, a City Hall spokesperson emailed in response to THE CITY’s questions that the 4,000 figure was an “estimate … based on a comprehensive analysis of the self-reported information that clients provide at intake which also helps inform our assessment of capacity needs and forecast trends.”

“Because we do not ask people’s immigration status at our intake centers during the self-report process, we use a variety of information provided by our clients to determine if they are seeking asylum,” the spokesperson said.

City Hall, the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless all agree that the current capacity of available family shelter beds started to diminish in May and is now critically low.

There is, however, disagreement about what’s causing this. Shelly Nortz, director of policy for the Coalition, questioned the focus on providing shelter specifically targeted only for asylum seekers given that multiple factors are driving the spike in applicants.

“We continue to have concerns about the lack of planning going into this,” she said. “There are multiple factors that affect the census. The asylum seekers is one of many factors, and nobody’s been able to quantify it. It’s definitely not the only factor.”

She and others have said other issues are in play, including an increased number of evictions following the end of the pandemic eviction moratorium and the usual spike in families applying for shelter that happens each summer.

City Hall is also once again returning to the much-criticized practice of placing the homeless in hotels. During the pandemic, the Department of Homeless Services relied on otherwise empty hotels to get individuals out of crowded congregate shelters, but stopped last fall and began transferring the homeless back to city-run shelters.

In June, for example, DHS told the coalition a hotel in Queens that the department had  intended to stop using was going to continue to accept families. Some 200 units are now back on line.

No One Way to NYC    

Several narratives have emerged to explain the recent wave of asylum seekers who have entered the city’s shelter system. Some organizations, including Catholic Charities of New York and the New York Immigration Coalition, have said that they’ve been listed as sponsors by asylum seekers at the direction of federal officials at the border. 

Murad Awawdeh, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said his organization has been receiving notices to appear for families seeking asylum. 

“I personally do not think that people would name Catholic Charities or New York Immigration Coalition. I think it was just CBP,” Awawdeh said, referring to the federal Customs and Border Patrol service.

Mario Russell, director of Immigrant and Refugee Services for Catholic Charities New York, offered a similar view in a recent interview: “What I’m speaking of here is sort of like the federal government is having its agents put these administrative office addresses of Catholic Charities, that’s happening at the federal level. And that needs to be looked at immediately.”

Catholic Charities volunteers help Central American refugees in McAllen, Texas, Aug. 17, 2017. Credit: Vic Hinterlang/Shutterstock

Customs and Border Patrol did not respond to questions from THE CITY.

None of the four families seeking asylum THE CITY spoke to at the PATH Intake center said they had been directed to NYC by border patrol agents. Two flew into the United States straight to New York with a sponsor — a family member or friend willing to receive the migrant. 

Like Natalia and Yohan, a second family that had also arrived from Colombia said they were applying for shelter because of their precarious housing situation in New York City. 

The other two families were allowed to enter the country through the border after fleeing Venezuela, neither with a sponsor. Venezuelans are heavily represented among the new arrivals, owing in part to recent federal immigration policies.

Starting in 2020, the federal government under former President Donald Trump began turning asylum-seekers away at the border, citing the public emergency caused by the pandemic, in a policy known as Title 42. President Joe Biden sought to end the policy but ended up in a court battle still playing out, following a June Supreme Court decision allowing Biden to end the program

Mexico has agreed to receive migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala while they wait for U.S. asylum cases to be heard. However, other nationalities with poor diplomatic relations with the United States or higher costs to return migrants to their home countries are more likely to be given entry into the United States. Both are true for Venezuelans.

One of the Venezuelan families in New York City, who asked not to be named, said they crossed the border after traversing the Darien Gap — the swath of jungle, mountain and swamp that straddles the Colombian and Panamanian border where many families have lost their lives — and making their way through various Central American countries. 

They decided to come to the city, they said, after overhearing other migrants at the border discuss New York’s guaranteed shelter. At the border, they then accepted a ride on a charter bus to Washington, D.C., a decision they had an hour to make. Then an evangelical group helped them the rest of the way with tickets to New York City, arriving on the seventh of July 

They were not able to identify which city in Texas they arrived in, nor who exactly provided them the bus rides. 

Monday, they visited the PATH center on East 151st Street for a third time to renew their stay in the shelter system, where they are guaranteed a place to stay in 10-day intervals. THE CITY reported in January that last year PATH rejected three in four applications by families seeking a stay in the city’s shelter system, the most since City Hall started sharing those numbers a decade ago.

Under a pandemic-era city policy, families are permitted to remain in temporary shelter even after having one or more applications rejected, so long as they reapply.

A Venezuelan named Roiser, his wife and their twin daughters also made their way to the United States by crossing the Darien Gap, he told THE CITY. They fled because of the fear that Roiser, a state police officer, would be imprisoned for 20 years for not agreeing with the Nicolás Maduro regime. They said a friend traveling with them during the journey drowned in a river. 

After arriving in McAllen, Texas, he said Catholic Charities oriented his family on how to go to New York City or Washington, D.C. He and his family rode five Greyhound buses from Texas to NYC, spending a total of $1,360 on tickets. 

His hopes now are that he’ll obtain a worker’s visa and that he and his family can adapt more to life in the United States. 

“We’re grateful because they helped with a shelter — we’re headed to one now,” he said in Spanish. “The intention is to be as legal as possible here and to try to integrate into society, to work, to rent on our own, for the girls to begin the school year.”