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Adams admin confirms Bronx tent shelter won’t comply with city’s ‘right to shelter’ laws in City Council hearing

Adams, Bronx, City Council
City Council Member Shahana Hanif and Council Speaker Adreinne Adams holding hearing on asylum seeker crisis. Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.
Photo courtesy of New York City Council

A new Bronx tent shelter facility the city is constructing to house some of the thousands of migrants who’ve come here in recent months won’t comply with the city’s “right to shelter” law, officials from Mayor Eric Adams’ administration confirmed Friday in a City Council oversight hearing.

The hearing was called by the council’s Committee on Immigration Chair Shahana Hanif in response to what she characterized as the city’s failure to “meet the basic needs” of over 13,000 newly arrived migrants – who’ve been coming to the city in droves since May. Hanif was in part referring to reports the city has twice violated its right to shelter law over the summer, most recently failing to house 60 men – who had to sleep on the floor and benches of a Manhattan intake center overnight.

“In responding quickly to this unprecedented crisis, it is clear that in other ways, we are failing to meet the basic needs of recent arrivals,” Hanif said. “Every few days over the past two months, we have seen headlines about migrants who have not been provided shelter, food or other necessary resources by the city. We’ve also read stories of migrants who are isolated without sufficient mental health care or in-language communication.”

Tent city for migrants rises in the Bronx
Construction work has begun for the Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers in Orchard Beach. Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. Photo by Dean Moses/file.Photo by Dean Moses

New York City Emergency Management Commissioner Zach Iscol – whose agency, along with city Health and Hospitals, is tasked with running the facility – made it clear it won’t be in compliance with the city’s right to shelter law when Hanif asked him about it point blank.

Iscol said the city won’t be out of compliance with its right to shelter obligation, which requires it to provide lodging to anyone seeking shelter, because the law only applies to its homeless shelters and not the tent facilities.

“Our homeless shelters run by [the Department of Homeless Services (DHS)] meet all of the requirements of Callahan because they are homeless shelters,” Iscol said, referring to the 1979 court decision – Callahan v. Carey – that established the city’s right to shelter law.

“These are not homeless shelters, they don’t fall under Callahan,” he continued. “But where we meet the requirement of Callahan is anybody who wants to go to a homeless shelter is more than welcome to do so. But these are emergency relief and response centers, [built] to meet the needs of this humanitarian crisis.”

City Council members questioning the Adams administration officials in an oversight hearing on the asylum seeker crisis. Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Photo courtesy of New York City Council.

Besides Iscol, Hanif along with City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and several other Council members, directed questions to Adams administration officials including Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Manuel Castro, Dr. Ted Long – from city Health and Hospitals and city Department of Homeless Services First Deputy Commissioner Molly Park.

The administration first revealed last week that it was planning to construct the first of two Humanitarian Emergency Relief and Response Centers (HERRCs) in the east Bronx parking lot of Orchard Beach, which will house up to 1,000 migrants on a temporary basis. The centers are meant to relieve some of the strain on the city’s homeless shelters, which have been overwhelmed by the hundreds of migrants arriving in the city each day.

Most of the asylum seekers are South and Central Americans who were bussed to the city by southern states like Texas, Arizona and Florida after traveling hundreds of miles north and crossing the U.S.’s southern border.

The first hints that these new facilities may not be in compliance with right to shelter rules came earlier this week, when Mayor Eric Adams suggested that how the city is handling the migrant crisis is separate from its right to shelter laws. That means the facilities may not comply with standards set under the right to shelter law for the spacing between and size of beds as well as the number of showers and toilets per person and the provision of mail and laundry services.

Migrant Tents
Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers are under construction. Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. Photo by Dean Moses/file.Photo by Dean Moses

When facing questions from council members Friday, Iscol seemed to confirm that some of these standards for accommodations indeed may not be met when the facility opens in the next couple of weeks. For instance, Hanif asked him if beds would be at least three feet apart from each other.

“So, we’re still figuring out the exact spacing of the beds and also showers and those types of facilities as it’s being set up,” Iscol said.

When answering whether there’d be one shower for every 15 people and one toilet for every 10 people, as is also required under Callahan, Iscol said, “that’s the objective” but that he couldn’t provide a concrete answer at that time. He then added there may be only one toilet for every 16 people.

Iscol did make it clear the city is definitely meeting other right to shelter requirements by providing fresh linens, laundry services and storage lockers to migrants staying at the tent facilities.

As for the second HERRC, which will cater to families with children, Iscol said the city still hasn’t found a location for the shelter and couldn’t say whether or not children would be placed in a congregate setting there.

“I can tell you this is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and that I can’t tell you what is gonna happen in two weeks or three weeks or four weeks,” he said. “But I can tell you this administration is 100% committed to not housing children in congregate settings.”

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