Additional reporting by Marcus Santos
As temperatures soared into the nineties on Thursday, 19-year-old Belma found herself wandering across a stiflingly hot new city alone, without food or water.
The asylum-seeker from Angola arrived in Midtown by bus Tuesday. But workers at Roosevelt Hotel, the city’s intake center for newly arriving migrants, told her repeatedly there were no rooms or even cots for single adults.
“They sent me to another place. I went there and they sent me back here,” Belma, who asked to be identified only by her first name, told THE CITY outside the Midtown hotel on Friday morning.
Since then, she has spent one night on the sidewalk outside Roosevelt Hotel and another on the dusty floors of Grand Central Terminal.
“I’m tired. I haven’t bathed. I haven’t eaten, I haven’t slept — it’s hard,” she said, speaking in Portuguese. “If they don’t have space, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Front Door Closed
This week’s heat wave added another layer of stress to a shelter system already stretched beyond capacity. Officials say at least 107,300 people are in city shelters, more than half of whom are asylum-seekers.
Reports emerged in recent days of terribly hot migrants’ shelters with poor or little air conditioning, while advocates have been sounding the alarm that city officials are denying arriving migrants shelter. That is in apparent violation of the city’s long-standing right to shelter protection that requires the city to provide accommodations to anyone who seeks it.
As temperatures surged into the mid-90s on Friday, a line of several dozen migrants squatted along the East 45th Street sidewalk outside of the Roosevelt, all seeking a place to stay for the night. Families with young children were ushered to the front while adults were told to wait. By around 2:30 p.m. workers let migrants wait inside air-conditioned buses stationed out front. Those who managed to make it inside the hotel were offered a chair in a crowded ballroom and told to wait some more.
“They absolutely have to have a front door that is open,” said lawyer Joshua Goldfein of The Legal Aid Society, which serves as a legal advocate and watchdog for homeless New Yorkers, on behalf of the Coalition for the Homeless. The group has fielded repeated complaints that asylum-seekers were turned away at both the Roosevelt Hotel and regular Department of Homeless Services (DHS) intake centers, he said. “We said to them, ‘Hello, there’s an issue with the Roosevelt that people can’t get in the door. So, what are you going to do about that?’”
Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for Adams, reiterated the mayor’s repeated assertion, dating back to the beginning of this year, that New York City has run out of space.
“Our teams run out of space every single day and we do our best to offer placements wherever we have space available,” Levy said.
City officials acknowledged they were turning arriving migrants away at a July 19 press conference, and Bloomberg News reported last week that workers at the intake were handing out flyers to migrants that warned, “We cannot provide you housing at this time.”
“They just have to wait,” Mayor Eric Adams said when he was asked where people should turn for housing.
Asked if Legal Aid plans to take action against the city, Goldfein declined to comment. He told Gothamist this week that only offering shelter space elsewhere in New York state does not violate the city’s legal obligations.
‘Sweating Like a Pig’
Most of the migrant shelters that the city has rapidly opened up in gymnasiums, vacant offices and church basements have some form of climate control. But Zach Iscol, commissioner of New York City Emergency Management, confirmed that one so-called respite center inside the former Lincoln Correctional Facility in Harlem had no air conditioning at all.
Nearly 450 people are staying there, Iscol said at a press conference Thursday. He added that the city, as a health precaution, was barring asylum-seekers older than 60 from staying at the former jail.
“Last night I was sweating like a pig,” José Sanchez, a 28-year-old migrant from Ecuador, told THE CITY in Spanish on Thursday afternoon, when temperatures were in the 90s.
Across from the former jail, Sanchez and about a dozen other men sought shelter from the heat on benches in the shade along Central Park North.
Maikol Contreras, a 26-year-old migrant from Venezuela, said he was grateful to have a roof over his head, but described regular quarrels among men who had to share a single fan among more than a dozen people.
“Everyone started fighting about the location and direction of the fans,” he said.
Contreras said he’s managing the heat by staying outside near Central Park until 2 or 3 in the morning.
“Every single room is the same way,” added Rafael Ramos, 34, who was getting his hair cut by Contreras. “We all have the same issue.”
Sanchez also described how guards in the shelter would sometimes remove fans from the rooms and bring them closer to themselves.
“We get to the rooms and the fans are missing because they don’t place them back,” he said.
Emergency Management spokesperson Aries Dela Cruz said air-conditioned buses have been stationed outside the former jail since Thursday, and will remain in place until Saturday evening. He added that the office has also assigned additional nurses to make rounds within the respite center every two hours.
But advocates have also raised additional concerns about the conditions inside the city’s network of more than 192 ad hoc migrant shelters.
Those include a facility in Bushwick where people went days without access to working showers, and others where meals have arrived spoiled or else frozen, meaning people in rooms where hot pots and microwaves are not allowed have no way to eat them.
‘Punishing the Migrants’
As the number of asylum-seekers in city shelters rose to more than 56,000 this week, the city has raced to expand its shelter capacity — most recently with a shelter for 1,000 men in the state-owned parking lot at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens that officials hope to open by early August.
And last week, officials announced a series of dramatic policy shifts aimed at dissuading migrants from traveling to New York City. They planned to distribute flyers on the southern border telling people not to come to New York, and to begin kicking out migrants who have been in shelters the longest. At least 100 people have received 60-day warning notices, officials said Wednesday.
Some newly arrived asylum-seekers said they had already gotten the message.
“They told us there’s no space for us to stay here,” Leonardo Soledad, 26, said in Spanish.
He arrived Friday morning at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown with his parents and two younger siblings.
Soledad said he had not seen City Hall’s flyers informing migrants about how expensive and arduous the city could be, but that he had heard via social media and WhatsApp about Adams’ plan to boot people out of shelters.
“We don’t want to be a burden,” Soledad said Friday outside the Roosevelt Hotel intake center, where his family lined up in search of tickets to Washington D.C., where they heard housing might be easier to find.
Power Malu, an activist with the nonprofit group Artists-Athletes-Activists, said policy shifts — like not providing bus service between the Port Authority and the Roosevelt Hotel so people have to walk across Manhattan upon arrival, and barring people from hotel bathrooms — send a clear message.
“The city is purposely causing this. They are punishing the migrants,” Malu said. “Their plan is to make it look as chaotic as possible.”
The Adams administration has pushed back against such characterizations as officials maintain that New York City is doing more to help asylum-seekers than most places in the country, while repeatedly pushing the federal government for more aid.
“We are treating migrants as best as we can,” Deputy Commissioner of Health and Human Services Ann Williams-Isom said at a press briefing Wednesday.
‘Three Days, No Food’
Outside the Roosevelt Hotel early Friday, Had Amine Hmeida, 27, said he was hungry and thirsty from a sleepless night outdoors.
“Three days — no food, no sleeping,” said Hmeida, an asylum-seeker from Mauritania. “I am tired.”
A day earlier, workers at the hotel had sent him to the men’s shelter at Bellevue run by DHS, where he was promptly returned to the Roosevelt. Staff at Bellevue would not let him use the bathroom, so he relieved himself in the street, he said.
Hmeida said all his belongings were confiscated at the border, leaving him with a resealable plastic bag containing his passport, COVID-19 vaccination card, phone and a charger. Despite a bleak 24 hours, he remained hopeful.
“This is beautiful, New York,” he said.