NEW YORK — New York City’s sprawling network of homeless shelters are bursting at the seams as rents skyrocket, evictions accelerate and a new mandate from Mayor Eric Adams pushes homeless people out of the subway system and off the streets.
But the mayor, a moderate Democrat who took office in January, isn’t blaming those factors for causing the shelter crisis, which began months ago. Instead, he’s deflecting, suggesting New Yorkers should look to Texas, to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and his decision to bus migrants from towns near the border to Washington and, now, New York.
“It is unimaginable what the governor of Texas has done,” Adams said on Sunday at the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan, where he greeted 14 migrants who arrived on tickets gifted by Abbott.
Seeking to frame the issue as one his administration could not have anticipated, Adams has blamed the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona for sending buses of South and Central American asylum-seekers to New York, though he hasn’t been able to quantify their impact beyond conclusory statements. The self-anointed “face” of the Democratic party, Adams is now jousting with Abbott on the national stage as he beseeches the Biden administration for federal aid.
Yet the influx of asylum-seekers doesn’t tell the whole story, and the problems at shelters had been building for much of the mayor’s term. And elected officials, homeless advocates and shelter providers now say Adams has turned a blind eye to a long-mounting and predictable crisis.
Now Adams is in a bind and turning to less-than-ideal solutions, like placing people in commercial hotels, as he and his administration scramble to bring new facilities online swiftly and add capacity to the straining shelter system.
“It was no mystery to anyone that people were going to be losing their homes and becoming homeless this summer in increased numbers beyond the usual summer surge,” said Joshua Goldfein, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project, referring to a typical increase in family shelter applications after school lets out for the summer.
“We have no evidence that what we’re seeing right now is purely a result of the asylum-seekers,” he said. “What we’re seeing is a result of the city’s failure to plan.”
Yearning to breathe free
Adams took office at a pivotal time. He was the first New York City mayor in decades to inherit a smaller shelter population than his predecessor — largely thanks to a Covid-related state ban on evictions that reduced the flow of new clients into the shelter system.
The eviction moratorium lapsed as Adams took office in January. Meanwhile, rents hit new records every month, evictions began moving through housing court amid a shortage of tenant attorneys and rental vouchers became harder for people in shelters to use, thanks to bureaucratic hurdles, a city government staffing shortage and source of income discrimination.
And now the headcount in shelters — 45,000 when Adams took over — exceeds 50,000 people, many of them families, even as the mayor has scrapped planned shelters and focused on clearing street homeless to improve the city’s image. Last month, the city violated the law when it failed to timely place four families in temporary housing amid a crush of new applicants.
Adams has attributed nearly that entire increase to asylum-seekers, though his administration says it doesn’t have an actual headcount, because it cannot inquire about citizenship.
Last month, Adams claimed Arizona, Texas and the federal government were sending migrants, at the time saying some 2,800 had come since May — an estimate that has since increased to nearly 5,000. Both governors denied doing so, Abbott saying he had only sent migrants to Washington. That changed last Friday when he announced the new effort to bus migrants to the five boroughs.
“He is shipping people who have traveled for months, packing them on buses and sending them to New York,” Adams said of Abbott this week. “It's just a mean and cruel thing that he's doing.”
Some new arrivals have been “re-ticketed” for other destinations, according to Adams. Some others have told the media they are staying with friends or family in the city. Amid a crisis at home, the mayor has even suggested he would take a bus full of New Yorkers down to Texas to campaign against Abbott.
In the mayor’s telling, the unprecedented influx of migrants left the city unable to plan for the shelter increase. After his administration ran afoul of the law last month, Adams praised administration officials for successfully providing shelter to thousands more with little time to prepare.
One of these officials, a former spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services, said she was fired for objecting to an alleged attempt to cover up the violations, according to NBC.
Adams typically answers reporters’ questions at the end of his press conferences, but he ignored shouted questions from reporters on the matter Thursday, pausing briefly with the city’s press corps., only to then claim he had to leave for a meeting that “can’t wait.”
City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, who leads the city’s 51-member legislative body (and is not related to the mayor), has criticized Adams’ “lack of clarity” on how he’s tallying asylum-seekers.
“It is clear that the City’s shelter system has been under increased stress due to a range of factors, including the economic impact of the pandemic and the end of the eviction moratorium,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “While there may be a rise in asylum-seekers in New York City, this does not mean they are to blame for issues that have historically plagued our shelter system.”
Legal Aid and others have asked city officials for data on how they reached that estimate, but said they haven’t received a clear accounting.
During a City Council hearing on the matter Tuesday, the head of the city’s Department of Homeless Services, Commissioner Gary Jenkins, said New York relied on “self-reported information” during the intake process to reach the figure while noting the agency cannot ask for the documentation status of people entering shelters.
Asked about evictions, he said only 1 percent of people entering the system are seeking shelter as the result of an eviction proceeding. Asked what time period that’s covering, the department said it was between January and June of this year (the census began rising in May.) This figure doesn’t include people displaced or priced out of their housing without a full eviction case. The agency did not respond to inquiries whether it tracks those factors or what percentage of new arrivals in shelter were asylum-seekers.
“Official evictions are distinct from illegal lockouts and people that are leaving under duress and people that are leaving because their rent is just too damn high,” said Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy at the Coalition for the Homeless.
In a statement, a city spokesperson said: "The numbers don’t lie: 1% of families with children entering shelter are because of eviction proceedings, and the overwhelming majority of people entering shelter currently are asylum-seekers. It's unfortunate that some people choose to push a false narrative, but we're staying focused on our mission and we invite them to join us. We’ll continue to work around the clock to provide asylum-seekers and everyone experiencing homelessness with quality shelter, resources, and support."
A mounting issue
The vacancy rate across city facilities for homeless families with children is under 1 percent and the rate has fallen consistently since early April, according to city data compiled by Legal Aid.
Many argue the city shouldn’t have let shelter capacity become so strained in the first place — either by moving people out of the system faster or opening new sites more swiftly.
Council Member Diana Ayala, chair of the general welfare committee, said she anticipated a spike in the shelter census going into 2022.
“This is not an easy situation — it’s very, very complicated — but the vacancy rates should be higher because we should be prepared in the event that something like this happens,” she said in an interview.
Ayala chaired an oversight hearing on the end of the eviction ban in late February, where she urged the administration to “proactively get ahead of accommodating what could be a massive influx of new clients in need of assistance,” focusing on ensuring sufficient rental assistance to keep people in their homes.
The city has shown it can accommodate far more shelter seekers than it is now — though many of those facilities were decidedly substandard, and the city sought to shutter them in favor of better shelters. The number of families with children in the shelter system surpassed 13,000 in early 2017, but the city lost beds in recent years, assisted by the drop in people entering the system during the pandemic.
“They were playing it way too close to the margins,” Nortz said, referring to the available shelter capacity for families with children. “They have known, according to their own admissions for months, that there appears to be an unexpectedly higher shelter census, so they should have been accelerating the capacity expansion.”
In recent weeks, the city opened emergency shelters at 11 hotels, Jenkins said Tuesday.
Last week, Adams issued an emergency declaration allowing him to bypass normal procurement rules to open shelters more quickly.
But his actions up to that point were lacking, and he has yet to articulate a clear plan to open up additional shelter capacity, either through new shelters or policies to make it easier to move people out of the system, advocates and shelter providers say.
Nortz and shelter providers like Charles King, president and CEO of Housing Works, decried the mayor’s unwillingness to stand up to opponents of new facilities. The administration has scrapped plans for at least three shelters in recent months, in Manhattan’s Chinatown and Morris Park in the Bronx.
One of those projects, slated for a shuttered hotel in Chinatown, was a safe haven shelter — a type of facility geared towards people sleeping on streets and subways — set to be run by Housing Works. The plans were killed at the last minute, however, following opposition from the Hotel Trades Council, according to King.
A spokesperson for the city Department of Homeless Services said the city has opened 15 new shelters (not including the 11 emergency hotels) in 2022 so far.
Much of Adams’ focus during the first few months of his still-fledgling administration centered on unsheltered homelessness, with the city releasing plans to clear encampments and remove people sleeping in the subway system.
By the mayor’s own count, however, relatively few people removed from the subways have actually remained in shelters, which advocates attribute to reservations about the dormitory-style facilities used to house single adults. Safe haven and stabilization shelters typically place fewer restrictions on people staying in them and are more likely to offer private rooms.
A spokesperson said the city has opened 700 safe haven and stabilization beds since January. Adams announced plans in April to open 1,400 such beds by mid-2023.
"From a historic $171 million investment in safe haven and stabilization beds, to stepping up to meet the needs of thousands of asylum-seekers arriving in New York City, it's clear that this administration is committed to serving the most vulnerable," a City Hall spokesperson said in a statement.
King was skeptical the administration would reach its 1400-bed goal.
“They are completely disorganized, and the mayor's office has taken it upon itself to approve every hotel that is to be used for this purpose. They can't do anything in an expeditious way,” King said.
He recounted how, after the Chinatown plans were scrapped, Housing Works was asked by the administration to look for a location in Jamaica, Queens. They brought forward two locations, but City Hall “sat for a good six, eight weeks before they told us Jamaica was a no go.” The organization then found a hotel in downtown Brooklyn and worked to get an application in, only to be told by City Hall they wanted Housing Works to open a shelter at a particular hotel in Jamaica after all.
“It’s been more chaotic recently than I think I have ever seen, so I can understand the sponsors being wary of a process that doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason to it,” Nortz said. “Not only have they not provided substantive plans but they’ve also pulled planned sites, and that’s something that’s not going to inspire others to step forward.”
Erin Durkin contributed reporting.