Additional reporting by Hiram Alejandro Durán
About 150 migrant families staying in two west-central Staten Island hotels converted to shelters in September may finally be able to wash their clothes instead of taking a 20-minute bus ride to the nearest laundromat.
Project Hospitality — a nonprofit with $61 million in contracts with the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) — handed out laundry cards to residents on Christmas Day.
The cards came nearly a week after THE CITY first inquired about the laundry challenge for those staying at the shelter, which had left some kids without clean, warm clothes to wear to school over the winter.
“Despite unprecedented challenges and resource constraints, DSS, our dedicated teams, and our not-for-profit provider partners continue to work tirelessly to bring emergency sites and essential services, including the provision of laundry options, online,” Stephen Witt, a DHS spokesperson, said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon after THE CITY asked about the new cards. “We continue to assess the laundry service needs of each unique emergency site and work closely with our providers to ensure that clients have adequate laundry access.”
The scramble to belatedly set up accommodations at the two shelters comes as the city is preparing for a possible influx of asylum-seekers in the coming year. They join a shelter system that is already housing a record number of people.
Since September, families in the two Staten Island shelters had to take a 20-minute bus ride to the nearest laundromat and pay for laundry using their limited funds; try to find new threads at donation drives, or simply continue to wear dirty and unlaundered clothes, said Celeste Tesoriero, a volunteer and immigration attorney who represents some of the hotel’s residents in asylum cases.
“I can tell you firsthand, I see what he wears — the clothes smell, and his clothes are dirty, and he’s going to school like that,” Tesoriero told THE CITY last week, referring to a child she works with. In an email to the Coalition for the Homeless sent a week before that, she wrote: “Their mother is getting in trouble for sending them to school in shorts in the winter but she told me it’s because those are the only clean clothes they have left since a community member did their laundry in her home weeks ago.”
Speaking to THE CITY on Tuesday, Tesoriero said that “no one who got a card that I’ve spoken to so far understands” exactly what to do with them. Residents have been instructed that each floor will be assigned a day of the week when residents can access the building’s machines, which have been off-limits to this point.
That would be a significant improvement for many families, based on what they told THE CITY, before receiving the laundry cards on Christmas.
“It’s a little difficult,” Branller Alfonso Campos, 29, said in Spanish on Dec. 23 while waiting for a bus to head back to the shelter after washing his family’s clothes at one of the nearby laundromats. Campos and his family struggled to carry their clothes on a snowy Friday. “Now with the weather [and] taking the kids out — to go to the laundromat is a little tough.”
Campos, accompanied by his 8-year-old and 3-year-old, noted at the time that there was an obvious solution to that problem.
“The hotel has a laundromat but they don’t make it accessible,” he said.
“That’s been a recurring theme at a variety of sites around the city that we’ve seen open up really quickly,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, a court-appointed independent monitor for Department of Homeless Services shelters. “They don’t have laundry established by the time people get there.”
‘In Spite of Everything, Good’
When THE CITY visited the shelters on Dec. 21, parents waited just outside of the five-story hotels for their children to hop off school buses while Tesoriero and another volunteer waited to greet them in the hotel parking lot with a big pot of hot chocolate and cans of whipped cream.
While parents expressed gratitude to the city generally and characterized their overall experiences as positive, they did say the lack of on-site laundry services made things more difficult. Asylum-seekers had to cover those laundry costs while being barred from working on the books for six months.
“I go to the laundromat. You get on the bus and it’s about 10 stops,” said Carmen, a Venezuelan migrant accompanied by her 3-year-old daughter in a stroller. She spoke to THE CITY in Spanish, saying she went early to wash clothes before taking her daughter to school. “It’s difficult … I have to get there early because she doesn’t have transportation on the bus.”
Other migrants gave similar accounts of what they needed to do to wash their clothes.
“In spite of everything, good,” Yeribet Mora told THE CITY in Spanish when asked about her experience at the shelter, dividing attention between a reporter and her energetic daughter speeding back and forth across the hotel driveway. “The bad thing is that they don’t let you cook and you don’t have laundry.”
‘An Emperor-Has-No-Clothes Situation’
Coordination challenges between city government and the groups contracted to run shelters are common in emergency shelters opened on short notice to accommodate rising demand, said Simone, the policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless.
Shelter providers, she noted, don’t always have enough lead time to gather and finalize all of the required paperwork, including plans that would offer guidance and accountability for daily operations. Additionally, documents such as an operating plan, safety and security plans, and licenses for food handler are often disorganized, misplaced, or even missing from what is known in the industry as the “critical binder,” which the Coalition monitors on behalf of the city in its role as a court-appointed monitor.
Another issue, Simone added, is that private shelter operators and DHS sometimes don’t have the time to establish relationships with third-party service providers in places lacking legally required on-site facilities or services.
“We’ve been urging the city to make sure that the existing sanctuary sites have appropriate services and staffing,” she said. “And then to ensure that, going forward, should there be another increase in the shelter census and more asylum seekers entering the system, to ensure that new facilities that are opened have everything set and ready before they start receiving residents.”
Tesoriero first raised the issue at the Staten Island shelters to the Coalition — an outside group that monitors many city shelters under various court orders related to New York City’s unique right to shelter — back in November, alleging violations of state and city regulations that require shelter operators to provide laundry facilities either on-site or “at a nearby commercial laundromat.”
According to excerpts of emails the Coalition shared with Tesoriero and that were later reviewed by THE CITY, Project Hospitality did secure a laundry service contract about a week after Tesoriero’s concerns were forwarded to DHS.
“This service will begin today, November 21, 2022,” a DHS staffer wrote back. “I am sure this initiative will run smoothly as we welcome it.”
But an update a few hours later already showed signs of trouble: “The laundry service showed up 2 hours late. Families were waiting for some time for pick up. When the service arrived they did not have enough vans to accommodate the amount [of] laundry our families had,” a DHS staffer wrote, adding that 55 families had signed up for the service.
Tesoriero added that the laundry service had helped only “a select few” at just one of the two hotels. No one at the second hotel, she said, has been offered laundry service at all.
“I waited a week and [the] situation has not changed,” she wrote the Coalition on Nov. 29 in a follow-up email. “Project Hospitality remains — inhospitable … There’s a lot of not-good stuff going on down there.”
Then by mid-December, neither of the two hotel-shelters was offering any laundry or service at all, according to an email from Tesoriero to the Coalition on Dec. 11.
“It’s an emperor-has-no-clothes situation. The city didn’t have the capacity to handle the influx so they outsourced it to non-profits,” Tesoriero wrote at the time. “What that non-profit is saying is happening, and what is actually happening, are two very different things.”
‘Many Dead Along the Way’
Migrants at the two shelters have had to make do without access to a kitchen, several asylum-seekers told THE CITY. One of them added that there were only three microwaves for the 75 or so families in the building that person was in, and that one of those microwaves had broken. They are provided with three meals a day, often cold or half-frozen, migrants added. DHS did not answer specific questions from THE CITY about the number of microwaves provided and the kinds of meals served.
“And if you buy something for cooking, they take it away from you, too,” said Carmen, noting that her electric stove was confiscated recently because it was a potential fire hazard, staffers told her.
Edison, a Venezuelan migrant who traveled 45 days with his 18-year-old son to arrive at the Texas border, told THE CITY that while he is “grateful for this government” after his arduous journey, he would like to see kitchen services expanded.
“At least that people can have microwaves in their rooms,” he said in Spanish, noting the lunch served that day had consisted of bread, carrots and an apple. “There’s two microwaves for about 100 families.”
Edison said he saw several people die from heart attacks or snake bites during his migration to the U.S. through Central America and Mexico. His journey included dangerous gangs and deadly mountainous terrain. Once he got to El Paso, immigration authorities threw him in a frigid holding cell, then put him on a bus headed to New York City, arriving in November.
“There are many dead along the way,” said Edison, explaining that he’d come to the U.S. to earn money as a barber to support family members back home including his wife who was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago.
“That’s why I migrated. Whoever comes here comes because, suddenly, they have to help their family,” he said.