Additional reporting by Diana Riojas and Greg B. Smith
An old judo gym, two churches, a shuttered school, and a vacant Midtown office building are among the six sites currently serving as what Mayor Eric Adams’ administration calls “respite centers,” which have opened up with little notice to the surrounding communities.
The centers provide migrants with little more than a cot to lie on, but few other accommodations. Some don’t have showers, leaving shelter seekers without a place to bathe for days.
Six respite centers have opened since early May with a combined capacity for around 1,600 people, according to an administration source familiar with the matter.
Three of those — the judo gym and St. Margaret Mary’s Catholic Church, both in Astoria, Queens, and a shuttered school building in Claremont in The Bronx — have not been previously disclosed publicly.
Those join the vacant Touro College office building in Midtown, the old Police Academy Gym in Gramercy Park and a former school on Staten Island.
On Tuesday evening there were about 600 empty beds spread across the six locations, the source said, who was not authorized to speak to reporters by City Hall. By Wednesday morning, that was down to 200.
A seventh facility at St. Brigid Church in the East Village is set to open in the next day or so, the source said, in the same building where the city had previously sent unvaccinated teachers to provide remote instruction.
A spokesperson for City Hall didn’t return a request for comment on the seven respite centers, including the three that are open but have not been previously confirmed.
Unlike the Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers (HERRCs), which are overseen by the city’s Health and Hospitals Corp. with medical care and showers on site, these new “respite centers” are even more bare bones, only intended for short-term stays, and overseen by the Office of Emergency Management, officials at City Hall confirmed.
“It’s not an accommodation, it’s like a waiting room,” Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for Adams, told THE CITY. “They’re basically like waiting rooms until we can find a placement for somebody.”
Some migrants, however, have told THE CITY they’ve currently been in these “waiting rooms” for around a week, with no indication they’ll be able to move. Asked what the maximum amount of time someone should spend in one of these waiting rooms, Levy declined to give specifics.
“Sometimes they’re a little bit longer. Sometimes a little bit shorter,” Levy said.
He noted the city’s offer of a hotel room still stands — for those migrants who are willing to leave New York City.
“If they want to volunteer to go upstate, we’re not forcing anybody to do so,” Levy said.
A Lifeline for Countless New Yorkers
The administration began using the term “respite center” retroactively around two weeks ago, after it had already opened a handful of these facilities: first at the Police Academy gym in Gramercy Park, where families including young children were staying, followed by one in a shuttered Staten Island school, and in a high school gym on Coney Island.
Adams last week said the city planned to house migrants in as many as many as 20 school gyms, though his administration walked back from that plan days later, after the surprise reveal stoked parental anger across Brooklyn.
The respite centers are meant to supplement larger and better equipped HERRCS, which for a short time included the cavernous tents the city put up and took down last fall at Orchard Beach and Randalls’ Island, and a sprawling facility inside the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal.
The respite centers and HERRCs are part of a new system of accommodations that, unlike the city’s shelter system, is only available to newly arrived migrants. City officials have argued the traditional rules that govern shelters don’t apply –- like there can’t be more than 200 hundred beds at any given site, and beds have to be spaced at least three feet apart.
Adams has argued the city can’t be hamstrung by rules and regulations in order to accommodate the unprecedented arrival of asylum seekers. Last week 5,600 people entered the city’s shelters, he said at a press conference Monday. The week before, 4,300 arrived, according to city officials. All told, 94,000 people, including 44,700 asylum seekers by the city’s count, are now staying in a patchwork of shelters, hotels, respite centers and HERRCs.
His administration took another dramatic legal step Tuesday: requesting a judge suspend the decades-old right to shelter for any adult who seeks it if the city, “lacks the resources and capacity to establish and maintain sufficient shelter sites, staffing, and security to provide safe and appropriate shelter.”
The move stunned homeless rights advocates who vowed to fight the city vigorously in court.
“For more than 40 years, Callahan has served as a lifeline for countless New Yorkers seeking shelter and critical services,” read a joint statement from the Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society. “New Yorkers do not want to see anyone, including asylum seekers, relegated to the streets.”
‘How Do We Meet People’s Basic Needs’
In Queens, the city officials began busing migrants to St. Margaret Mary Church late last week. Officials on the local community board only got word it had opened when a curious constituent called to inquire.
Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani (D-Astoria) was notified by the mayor office via text on Saturday morning, after the respite center was already open and housing 183 people, according to his communication director Emily Lemmerman.
“We asked what we could do to support asylum seekers or any needs they had, but have been told they don’t have a process yet for such support from our office,” Lemmerman said, adding that they were told it “wasn’t possible” to visit the site.
There aren’t showers in the church but migrants have allotted certain designated hours to use the showers at Astoria Park Pool, which is currently closed for construction, an administration source confirmed.
“Showers are considered kind of a bonus or an added amenity, and that is not being considered a must,” said Councilmember Tiffany Cabán (D-Queens), whose district includes the Astoria church.
“When you talk about, ‘how do we meet people’s basic needs, how do we make sure that we’re welcoming people in a dignified way?’ We need sites that have showers,” she said.
Leonel Camacarro, a 24-year-old from Venezuela now sleeping in St. Margaret Mary’s, told THE CITY in a visit there on Tuesday that he had worked construction in Colombia before making the perilous journey up through Central America..
From Mexico he crossed the Rio Grande into Texas, where immigration authorities picked him up, then spent eight days in Denver before taking a bus to New York. He arrived about a week ago in Midtown, he said.
From there he was bussed to Astoria, where he said people he could identify only as “the social workers” offered a bus ride to an undisclosed location elsewhere in the state where he could have a hotel room.
Instead, Camacarro told THE CITY on Tuesday, he was holding out hope something better would open up in New York City.
“I want what other migrants want, to work hard and get ahead and help my family,” he said in Spanish. “It’s the most important thing to do.”
‘Thank God, I Was Finally Able to Shower’
Migrants sent to the vacant Touro college office building in Midtown were there a week before getting access to a shower, according to a person in the administration and a man staying there.
“Thank God, I was finally able to shower,” Juan Carlos, 29, told THE CITY in Spanish, who said he hadn’t bathed since he was in Denver, about two weeks back. “I’m no longer stinky.”
He and others were sent in pairs to the nearby Stewart Hotel, one of the city’s HERRCs where migrants have been staying since November, and were allowed to bathe in 20 minute increments. Carlos said he wasn’t sure when they’d be allowed to return.
“We’ve been a little low in spirits,” he said. “But I’m just trying to get situated so I can start working and find a room to rent.”
An administration source said the city was doing its best to assure migrants could bathe at newly opened respite centers, but that each one presented an array of logistical complications.
“I wish we could say, ‘We’re not gonna open up another site without certain things in place,” but unfortunately we don’t have the option,” the source said. “The alternative is people sleeping on the streets.”
‘Our Shelter System Is Buckling’
The city’s request for a judge to suspend its requirement to provide shelter to adults, will be put before a judge soon.
Nick Paolucci, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department said once a new judge is selected for the case, the city is expected to submit paperwork in the coming days and The Legal Aid Society will have time to reply in writing. If a judge entertains the motion, the parties could appear in court next week, Paulucci said.
At a press briefing City Hall Chief Counsel Brendan McGuire repeatedly rebuffed questions about whether New Yorkers should expect to see droves of migrants sleeping outside the airports and the Port Authority, if the city gets its way.
“I understand the question and I’m not gonna answer it because it’s a hypothetical that’s based on how the court case plays out,” McGuire said. “The intention is not to get a court order so that we can shut the door and have thousands of people living on the street.”
At an unrelated press conference earlier on Wednesday, the mayor also dodged questions about what New Yorkers might expect if the city’s right to shelter is overturned.
“I am going to try to resolve this humanitarian crisis and the courts will decide,” Adams said. “Our shelter system is buckling.”