As angry parents protested outside of elementary schools across Brooklyn on Tuesday, worn-out asylum seekers the Adams administration had suddenly placed in those same school gyms remained inside — and out of sight.    

Albeidys Almera, a 21-year-old Venezuelan asylum seeker, told THE CITY that she hadn’t bathed in five days. She and her partner traveled by bus from El Paso to Denver and then from Denver to New York City, thousands of miles, before arriving at Port Authority over the weekend. From there, they were sent on buses to a school gym at P.S. 188 in Coney Island. 

Mobile showers that officials had said might arrive on Tuesday were not on site by the afternoon, meaning it had been five days since Almera had bathed. But still, as she walked outside shortly after protesters had dispersed on Tuesday afternoon, she said that she was grateful for the roof over her head — and remained optimistic about what life in this country might bring. 

“We’re looking for a better future,” she said in Spanish. “We want to work, that’s the first thing.”

Almera was one of the roughly 75 migrants staying in the gym who had been told to remain inside on Tuesday afternoon, as a small crowd of parents gathered on a street corner to denounce their arrival. 

In an interview with THE CITY, Almera said she sympathized with those protesters. 

“They’re right. It’s their property for their children. But I don’t know what to say. They’re supporting us so we don’t sleep in the street,” she said. “They told us we won’t be here for much time.”

Venezuelan migrant Albeidys Almera was sent to P.S. 188’s gym in Coney Island, May 16, 2023. Credit: Gwynne Hogan/THE CITY

The unannounced and abrupt repurposing of school gyms as emergency migrant shelters by the Adams administration has roiled neighborhoods across Brooklyn since it began last week, dividing neighbors with different views on how the city should handle the rapidly evolving situation.

Throughout the day Tuesday, arguments between parents played out on the sidewalks in front of schools from Williamsburg to Coney Island.

Janet Kruset, 74, whose grandchildren attend P.S. 17 in Williamsburg, said she and other demonstrators were determined to block migrants from arriving.

“You don’t know who’s coming in here,” Kruset said. “This gym was built for our kids. Not for anyone who wants to come and take over.”

A smaller group of parents who came to show support for migrants were heckled and jeered. 

“I understand people’s frustration,” said Casey Laytin, a public school parent who sits on District 14’s Community Education Council. “I just don’t understand the xenophobia, the racism around it, and the lack of compassion.”

Drastic Steps

On Tuesday morning, Mayor Eric Adams came out with a restrained defense of the decision to house migrants in school gyms, adding that 20 schools with freestanding gyms – buildings separate from schools on school grounds – had been identified, including the seven schools confirmed by THE CITY on Monday. City Hall has not identified the additional 13 schools.

“This is one of the last places we want to look at. None of us are comfortable with having to take these drastic steps,” Adams said on NY1 while giving brief live interviews, repeating the same talking points to several local TV and radio outlets. 

“But I could not have been more clear for the last few months of what we are facing.”

More than 41,000 asylum-seekers were staying in city shelters as of Monday, including 1,400 new arrivals in just the last week, according to City Hall. The latest surge comes on the heels of the expiration of the national state of emergency around COVID-19, known as Title 42, which gave federal authorities more leeway to deny migrants entry at the border.

By Tuesday, asylum-seekers were staying at P721R Richard H. Hungerford School on Staten Island and P.S. 188 in Coney Island. Preparations were underway in at least five additional schools to take on migrants as needed, including at P.S. 172 in Sunset Park, P.S. 189 in Crown Heights, and P.S. 132, P.S. 17 and P.S. 18 in Williamsburg, officials said. 

Outside M.S. 577 and P.S. 17 in Williamsburg, dozens of parents and kids marched around the school’s perimeter on Tuesday morning, chanting, “We support asylum-seekers — not on school grounds.” 

At a protest, Brooklyn Community Board 13 Chairperson Lucy Mujica Diaz said Coney Island was blindsided by the city’s decision to house migrants in P.S. 188, May 16, 2023. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Parents said they feared for their children’s safety, and also lamented the loss of a brand new gym that just opened in January. Asylum-seekers were not on the site, according to city officials.

Other parents talked about pulling their kids out as a group on Wednesday in further protest. Amanda McCants, 31, who was marching with her second-grade daughter, said she’d already done so. 

“It’s unsafe,” McCants said. The mayor “is out of his mind for allowing adults to be housed on school property. If he feels so strongly about it, he should house them in his own home.”

Marzena Wolert, a parent who was walking by the school, said she had been planning to send her daughter to preschool at P.S. 17, but was sickened by what she saw as “a racist school.” Several protesters, hearing what she said, chanted at her to leave the area. 

“I’m disgusted that people would not open a public school for others who are fleeing war,” Wolert said, a half-block away. “They don’t have a home, but you are not gonna have your gym?”

As she spoke with a reporter, protesters followed to continue yelling at her.

Human Beings

A similar scene played out at a rally outside P.S. 188 in Coney Island after dismissal. A crowd of angry parents gathered to denounce the migrants on site, while a smaller group offered displays of support.

Anthony Batista, 36, a lifelong Coney resident, said his feelings were mixed. 

“I’m against them being here, but they are actually human, right? We gotta treat people humanely.”

Earlier Tuesday, dozens of clergy members and community organizers spent two hours planning how to help the migrants in the coming days, several organizers said. They envisioned a network of showers in local homes that migrants could use, and plans for a mobile food truck and clothing drop-offs starting later that week. 

“I can stand here and say, ‘Oh my God, how could they do this? Why would they do such a thing?’ How is that helping anybody?” said Mathylde Frontus, a former state Assembly member who heads up the newly formed Coney Island Neighborhood Revitalization Corporation, and was among the organizers. 

“But now we have 70 human beings,” Frontus said. “They’re just human beings that are sitting right here.”