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Adams’ unfair homelessness and migrants policy

Since taking office in January 2022, hallmarks of Mayor Adams’ administration have involved creating a panic around crime, scapegoating NYC’s most vulnerable populations, and slashing social services despite a projected budget surplus, while increasing police presence and salaries, and legally enshrining discriminatory approaches to homeless and immigrant New Yorkers, often couched as benevolence.

The result: a city where homeless New Yorkers have been driven into increasingly desperate struggles to survive in the streets and subways; a city where thousands of asylum seekers and immigrant workers are joining them each night, having been denied shelter, because having them wait in the streets for days is the system our city administration set up.

While most New Yorkers struggle with the skyrocketing cost of putting food on the table and a deepening housing crisis, the mayor has encouraged us to believe that those who have the least in our city (not even a roof over their heads) are the source of our woes.

We are now a city where people constantly complain about the impacts of street homelessness, while at the same time hundreds gather to protest shelter openings, as we saw in Brooklyn this past weekend; a city where xenophobic and anti-homeless commentary pervades the public conversation, marked by shocking episodes of vigilante and police violence, like we saw in a Queens shelter and in a Brooklyn A train just last week, or like the killing of Jordan Neely last year. 

Last Friday the city administration reached an agreement with the Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society to systematically deny immigrant workers and asylum seekers equal access to our city’s shelter system. These things are all connected. 

This settlement creates a separate and unequal shelter system for immigrants and asylum seekers who arrived in the U.S. any time in the last two years. It denies them access to New York’s constitutional right to shelter, which has been recognized since 1981. That guarantee has existed without constraints based on arrival date or national origin.

This new system changes that. The expiration date for this new system is tied to the mayor’s Emergency Executive Orders, which he has renewed every five days since October 2022, to justify a range of cuts and measures, and shows no sign of stopping.

The agreement limits shelter stays for asylum seekers to 30 days for single adults and 60 days for those under 23 years old. Those covered will mostly be sheltered in massive HERRC tent shelters lined with thousands of makeshift cots, hotels outside of the city, or even outside of the state, or faith/community-based facilities. They will not have equal access to the regular DHS shelter system, and may be turned away altogether.

People who get 30 or 60 days in shelter can only extend their stay if they can show “extenuating circumstances,” as assessed by the city. If they fail to prove “extenuating circumstances,” they will be evicted from shelter. Ultimately, people denied access to shelter will be forced to choose between street homelessness or being transported out of the city by authorities (called “reticketing”).

When the city gives a vulnerable group of predominantly people of color differential and lesser legal treatment, while simultaneously dehumanizing and degrading them, no one can be surprised when the broader public increasingly comes to regard that same group as lesser.

It is a heartless, and in many ways gutless, political approach to demonize a group of people who have no home, let alone access to the media or politics to be able to defend themselves. Until the mayor reverses course on this political opportunism and engages meaningfully with the root causes of homelessness (lack of affordable housing, lack of social supports, lack of employment opportunities, the impacts of trauma, and more), these issues will continue to tear our city apart.

In the meantime, homeless New Yorkers, whether more recently arrived immigrants or the longer term homeless, will be the ones who suffer most of all.

Undoubtedly, the demand for shelter is a challenge our city is facing. The shelter population is at record levels because homeless New Yorkers cannot get housing — people go into shelter and then struggle to get out. Successive city and state administrations have failed to create affordable housing solutions that enable homeless people to exit shelter.

Our politicians have failed to address landlord warehousing of thousands of vacant apartments; and currently the mayor is outright refusing to implement housing subsidy legislation that would prevent more evictions. Our shelter challenges did not begin with an influx of immigrants and they certainly should not be solved by discriminating against them.

Dias is the managing director, Safety Net Project, Urban Justice Center.


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