Op-Ed | New York City can start addressing the migrant emergency by cutting government red tape

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Since January 2023, New York City has taken in 95,000 migrants. Their arrival has spurred countless debates on a national scale surrounding New York’s shelter capacity and the city’s ability to provide housing for this growing population. In an effort to combat the slowing revenue growth and financial strain caused by housing and caring for migrants, Mayor Adams recently decided to employ significant budget cuts and a hiring freeze. Yet, the facts are clear: Slashing funds and resources for a shelter system that was starving for resources before the migrant crisis began is only going to hurt New Yorkers – both in the immediate and long term. 

There’s no question that supporting refugees in our city is a moral imperative. But if the Mayor truly wants to address this emergency with the efficiency it demands, he should immediately advance measures to prevent entry into shelters and to expedite placements out of them. He also must pay greater attention to advancing cost-saving solutions that address systemic and operational challenges that have existed long before the current situation.

Before the recent influx of migrant and asylum-seeking families, 9,800 families with children were already languishing in our shelter systems, spending 520 days in shelter on average. Today, more than 18,000 families with children live in DHS shelters. As New Yorkers who have been homeless and lived on the verge of eviction, we know what it’s like when you don’t provide those seeking shelter with support.

Mayor Adams’ budget cuts will only exacerbate existing issues that persisted in New York City well before the surge of migrants. The Mayor’s proposed hiring freeze, which became effective on October 1st, bars city agencies from hiring for any positions unrelated to public health, public safety or revenue generation. This move is expected to leave 2,000 city jobs vacant — only further contributing to the ongoing staffing shortages we’re seeing across the city and a skyrocketing unemployment rate. Beyond immediate consequences, it will also put a pause on the Mayor’s existing housing plans, which would have produced an additional 100,000 homes. 

In order to truly tackle the migrant emergency, Mayor Adams should focus on cutting bureaucratic red tape and making it easier for families to access and retain public benefits like CityFHEPS and SNAP. For example, we need to urgently address the Human Resources Administrations’ severe staffing shortage. We also desperately need to invest in new technology solutions to ensure that CityFHEPS payments and renewals, cash aid, SNAP, childcare, Medicaid, and other critical benefits are secured and are not disrupted in transition to permanent housing.

Rather than continuing to disregard a severe housing shortage, Mayor Adams should work to get at the root of the issue by putting measures in place that will make it easier for people to get housing. This means implementing recently passed CityFHEPS legislation that significantly improves access to housing vouchers and eliminating the bureaucratic barriers preventing families from being placed into housing. The Mayor should also expand access to “set aside” units, which are units made available only to low income families. 

If we commit to removing unnecessary barriers, homeless families will immediately begin accessing housing support.

We also need to expand capacity within existing city programs and meet families where they are by opening new agency office sites if and where possible. This will ensure that families in the community have access to supportive services – such as emergency rental assistance, housing subsidies renewals, and legal assistance – to avoid shelter entrance and continue their path to housing and economic mobility.

New York City has the opportunity to implement measures that will actually help migrants and homeless families. We stand ready to work with the Mayor and all stakeholders to advance solutions that will improve outcomes for unhoused families, create space within our existing shelter system for newly arrived New Yorkers, and have a positive impact on the budget.

We hope the Mayor changes his approach to combating the migrant crisis and housing homeless families in need.

Diana Ayala is Deputy Speaker of the New York City Council and represents the 8th District, including East Harlem and the South Bronx, and is chair of the Committee on General Welfare. Rhonda Jackson is a lived experience community engagement consultant and Senior Fellow with the Family Homeless Coalition.