New York City’s right-to-shelter protections continued collapsing over the weekend, with a chaotic scene unfolding on the sidewalk in front of the Roosevelt Hotel, the city’s main intake center for arriving asylum-seekers. Some migrants dozed in air-conditioned buses stationed out front overnight. Others, too afraid to lose their places in line, bedded down on flattened cardboard boxes in a line that stretched around the block.
Throughout Friday and Saturday, workers stepped out of the city’s new welcome center to hand out red tickets similar to those used at school fairs or deli counters.
Those workers, acting on behalf of city government, were employees of the controversial subcontractor DocGo, which originally had been hired to do COVID-19 testing and recently was awarded a $423 million contract to help place asylum-seekers in an alternate shelter system run by the Health + Hospitals Corporation.
Every so often, workers emerged from the hotel to call out two or three numbers as a press of bodies surged forward, waving tickets in the air and urgently calling out their digits in Spanish, French, and Arabic with desperation. A handful of “shelter game” winners were then allowed to enter the hotel’s air-conditioned lobby to apply for help from there; everyone else kept waiting, indefinitely.
“I have faith in God,” said 38-year-old Mary in Spanish, clutching her red ticket. The asylum-seeker from Venezuela said she slept on the sidewalk outside the hotel Friday night, after arriving from the southern border by bus early Thursday morning. She declined to provide her last name, fearing immigration consequences. “I haven’t given up yet.”
Still, Mary said, her resolve faltered at around 2 a.m. Saturday morning, when she had to use the bathroom and security guards at the Roosevelt Hotel refused to let her in. She wandered the streets for about a half an hour before returning to the hotel in tears. Another employee took pity on her and let her use the facilities, though several other migrants told THE CITY they were told to find bathrooms at Grand Central Terminal or elsewhere.
“We didn’t think we would have to live like this,” Mary said, but “you have to face the situation.”
Employees of DocGo running the ticket system on site declined to answer questions about it Saturday. Adam Shrier, a spokesperson for the city’s Health + Hospitalsl system, said all families with children were brought inside the hotel, while tickets went out to adult asylum seekers on a first-come-first-served basis. Asked why the city was denying bathroom access to the people waiting outside, he said the hotel is at capacity.
‘The Next Phase’
On Monday, the Coalition for the Homeless and The Legal Aid Society issued a joint statement condemning the “heartbreaking and maddening” obstacles migrants arriving here are now facing, and saying that, “should this continue, we will have no choice but to file litigation to enforce the law.”
While the Adams administration is arguing in court to suspend the city’s long-standing right to shelter, the groups responsible for monitoring the city’s compliance with that right have yet to take legal action of their own to hold City Hall to account for repeatedly failing to comply with the law.
At an unrelated press conference on Monday, Mayor Eric Adams acknowledged that New York City, which is housing more than 56,000 migrants across around 200 ad-hoc sites while tens of thousands more are in the city’s shelter system, reached a new low.
“It’s not going to get any better,” Adams said, repeating points about how the city needs a “decompression strategy,” including much more federal funding and work authorization for the new arrivals. He warned that “from this moment on it’s downhill.”
Even as Adams said “it is just not sustainable” to keep providing air conditioning for migrants waiting outside for help, he vowed that a “next phase” is coming where “I can assure you that this city is not going to look like other cities where there are tents up and down every street.”
It’s unclear what he meant, though officials have already announced a plan to open a tent shelter soon for 1,000 people in a parking lot at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, which was met by opposition and a protest over the weekend.
“Eventually this was going to come to a neighborhood near you, and it is,” Adams said.
‘They Cheated Us’
Outside the Roosevelt on Saturday, as temperatures climbed into the upper 90s, men from Chad washed their feet in the gutter before kneeling down and facing northeast in prayer. Men from Sudan squatted around a box of pizza. A group of Venezuelans pooled funds to buy a halal meal from a nearby cart.
Many had fled horrors, and found more along their way: a trans woman escaped Venezuela after getting hurled from a third-story window; a teen fleeing gang violence in Ecuador watched his traveling companion die in the jungle, and a Sudanese man who’d traveled halfway across the globe said he was still haunted by visions of witnessing the murder of his sister and father.
Some told THE CITY they’d been told there was no space at the Roosevelt Hotel days earlier and, unsure of what to do next, wandered around seeking food and shelter. Others said they’d been sent to the Department of Homeless Services intake in Manhattan, only to be denied access there and told to return to the Roosevelt Hotel.
A Sudanese 23-year-old named Abakar, who declined to give his last name, said he arrived here Friday morning from San Diego. He spent nearly two months in a shelter there, barely able to leave his room, for fear they’d give it to someone else. Eventually workers there told him things would be different in New York; he’d get work papers and a place to stay.
It didn’t take Abakar long upon his arrival to realize that was not true, as he stood among dozens of other people all seeking a safe place to rest their heads and begin rebuilding their lives.
“This is not a place,” he said. “Here it’s like, homeless. They cheated us.”