New York’s shelter system is being overwhelmed by migrants

The tent city in the parking lot of Creedmoor Psychiatric Centre in Queens is far from ideal. The neighbourhood, 15 miles (24km) outside Manhattan, is mostly residential and is served by a solitary bus line. But because of the influx of migrants the tents are badly needed. It opened on August 15th and within a week the 1,000-bed facility was nearly full. Another shelter site, on Randall’s Island, between Manhattan and Queens, along with one soon to open at Floyd Bennett Field, a helicopter base in Brooklyn, will add 5,500 beds for migrants.

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Over 110,000 people are housed in New York City’s homeless shelter system. Of those, 53% are asylum-seekers. For over a year they have arrived in the Big Apple on buses, shipped by Texan politicians, or of their own accord, coming by plane, train, car and bus. In the week ending on August 20th, 3,100 arrived. New York’s “right to shelter” mandate, in place since a lawsuit was settled in 1981, means that anyone without a roof to sleep under is entitled to one from the city.

“We’ve been forced to play an unsustainable game of ‘whack-a-mole’, opening site after site as asylum-seekers continue to arrive by the thousands,” said Eric Adams, the city’s mayor, on August 21st. Earlier this month many people were forced to sleep for days on the pavement outside the Roosevelt Hotel, the city’s largest intake centre. Mr Adams says there is “no more room”. The state attorney-general is looking into allegations that DocGo, a medical services provider hired by the city, mishandled migrants in its care.

Housing huddled masses is not cheap. It will cost $4bn a year over three years: about 6% of what the city takes in tax, or roughly equivalent to the combined spending on the city’s fire and sanitation departments. Sheltering a single family costs around $380 a night, says Murad Awawdeh, of the New York Immigration Coalition, a refugees’ rights organisation. Renting an apartment costs a fifth of that.

New York City is unique in having assumed this obligation. Other cities, like Chicago and Philadelphia, are also struggling to help migrants, but neither has a legal requirement to house them (or the staggering numbers New York does). Only Massachusetts has anything remotely similar. It, too, is seeing an influx of arrivals; its governor has declared a state of emergency.

Some migrants have been bused to the suburbs on the city’s dime. But Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York state, is not a fan of moving migrants around. “Putting someone in a hotel on a dark, lonely road in upstate New York and telling them they’re supposed to survive is not compassion,” she said on August 16th. The state has directed $1.5bn to the city to help. But it has not budged otherwise. On August 23rd state and city lawyers gathered behind closed doors with a judge and the Legal Aid Society, a charity, to try to hash out a deal, but produced nothing.

New York has always been a gateway to America. But in the past the government did little beyond lifting the lamp beside the golden door to the tired and poor. Migrants were expected to find their own way, and mostly did, through family and kinship ties. The arrivals now tend not to have such links. Most are from Venezuela, but people get to America from as far afield as Russia and West Africa. One Mauritanian, who is staying in a suburban hotel paid for by New York City, says his family sold their livestock to pay for his travel costs. Most migrants would love to work, but it takes months for work permits to be issued.

Mr Adams has begged White House officials to expedite work permits. Stopping people from working is “anti-American”, he says. But the federal government is not going to change the asylum system quickly, if at all. Nor is the right to shelter likely to go away—and even if it did, the city is hardly going to start dumping people on the streets. “New York City would look like the West Coast cities with a lot more street homelessness,” says Kathryn Kliff, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, a charity. Something needs to change though. More migrants arrive every day. The mayor will have to get more inventive.

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