During the past six months, thousands of asylum seekers have been sent to New York, most coming from Texas by way of political gimmickry rooted in the goal that Northern liberals might finally understand the challenges of our immigration policy if they were confronted with a surge. By decree of a law long considered sacrosanct, anyone in New York without a place to stay must be granted one, which has brought roughly 14,600 of these new entrants into the city’s shelter system, where 11,000 currently remain in need of nearly everything.
When Mayor Eric Adams took office this year, the shelter population was near its lowest level in a decade. But those gains were soon erased as migrants came to constitute more than a fifth of the entire shelter count, which swelled from 45,000 in April to more than 59,000 this week. Six buses arrived at Port Authority on Monday alone. The mayor has properly described the situation as a “humanitarian crisis” and sought quick, contingent solutions — the construction of massive girded tents outfitted with cots in the parking lot at Orchard Beach in the Bronx for example. A response born of urgency amid the city’s ongoing housing emergencies, it was unwelcome by advocates for the displaced, who have criticized a plan to house migrants in a flood zone, far from public transportation and essential services.
What is so striking about this crisis is that it has unfolded in a fashion that seems almost imperceptible to a vast majority of us. Ten years ago, New Yorkers marshaled the best of themselves to aid the victims of Hurricane Sandy, particularly in the Rockaways, in Brooklyn and in Staten Island, where homes were destroyed or severely damaged. It was hard to miss the major relief efforts amplified on social media — to raise money, corral volunteers to muck out basements, feed people. Even the Corcoran real-estate office in my neighborhood became a site of field operations, receiving donated clothing and diapers, which volunteers would then regularly run out to the affected areas.
The rarity of a natural disaster in New York City certainly inspired people and the devastation was plain to see. But the corporate altruism that emerged after Sandy followed in the service of a cause that was not entwined in rancorous political discourse.
On Tuesday morning, I sat down with Michael Ottley and Jay Alfaro of Holy Apostles, a 178-year-old church that operates the biggest soup kitchen in the city and the second largest in the country, to take measure of the immense need social service providers were now facing. Located on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea, 11 blocks from the Port Authority, Holy Apostles was serving people who were often coming to the church straight from the buses that brought them here and who needed to be fed and clothed. As a soup kitchen they could complete the first mission, but the staff had always struggled to find clothes for its clients, Ms. Alfaro told me, and now the situation was dire.
“People are coming from tropical places,” she said. “Fifty degrees for us is nice but everything is such a culture shock, even the weather.” Beyond that summer is traditionally a terrible time for donations — people are away and no one is thinking about what might be useful to a person of few means in January. But now, in addition to looking for Spanish-speaking volunteers and pro bono lawyers, both of which the church was desperate to find, Mr. Ottley and Ms. Alfaro were trying to figure out how to come up with the coats everyone who came to the kitchen was asking for.
Before the influx of asylum seekers, Ms. Alfaro said, she might, on a typical day, find herself working with five or six clients on the process of getting government identification. But now, that number had increased sevenfold, and it was virtually impossible to keep up. Without that paperwork, nearly everything else was inaccessible to the new arrivals. “People come and they are very misinformed; they don’t know their rights,” Ms. Alfaro, herself a child of Guatemalan immigrants, told me. “They are under the impression that they can come to a church and get a social security card.”
Homeless people typically enter the shelter system with some number of belongings, perhaps even a cellphone. But the latest wave of asylum seekers, many having escaped the violence and deprivations of Venezuela, arrive with almost nothing and are often dealing with the emotional fallout of all the distress they left behind. The nonprofit network Win, the biggest operator of family shelters and supportive housing in the city, is currently serving 245 migrant families, with nearly 700 children among them. “We really need to be responding to this level of trauma,” Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker, who runs the agency, told me. One of the providers that the agency relies on now has a three and a half month wait for taking on new clients, the result, presumably, of the exploding burdens psychologists and social workers have absorbed as a consequence of the pandemic.
When I spoke with her, Ms. Quinn was in an ongoing conversation with a meat distributor to get discounts. Asylum seekers do not have easy access to food stamps and so meals have been another source of concern. Like Holy Apostles, Win also needed volunteer translators and cold-weather clothing.
The endgame, of course, is finding permanent homes. One measure the city could take to alleviate some of the chaos involves waiving the punitive rule that a family must remain in a shelter for 90 days before becoming eligible for a city housing voucher. This would move longtime residents out of the system more quickly, freeing up space for newcomers, who, in the case of undocumented immigrants, cannot qualify for housing assistance programs offered by the federal government. City officials say that they are looking into this as well as other options. Until then, relief will depend on our collective good will.