How Cruise Ships for Migrants Could Actually Work in NYC

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

In the city where the Statue of Liberty once welcomed shiploads of immigrants, Mayor Eric Adams has suggested using empty ocean liners to shelter the modern day homeless, the tempest-tossed refugees who arrive by bus.

Adams raised the possibility back in September, and again this week, as one way for the city to cope with an influx of migrants from the southern border that is straining the city’s ability to meet its legal obligation to shelter all who come there.

“We’re going to continue to do our moral and legal obligation. Whoever comes to the city, you’re not seeing individuals sleeping on the streets with families because we’re continuing to pivot and shift as needed,” he said in an interview with Politico. “And if it means using cruise ships, if it means I’m finding space on state land… we’re going to continue to pivot and shift to address the influx of migrants and asylum seekers that we’re seeing. Nothing is left off the table.”

At one point last year, the city had exploratory talks with the Norwegian Cruise Line. But a company spokesperson told The Daily Beast this week that the company is “not engaged in discussions with New York City about a potential charter of a cruise vessel.”

But the mayor might be roused from musing to action if he looks to Europe for an example of using cruise ships to absorb an influx of refugees. The success there should prompt him to seek at least a flagship, if not a whole flotilla in New York.

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Since last fall, the Scottish Government has provided temporary housing to 1,170 Ukrainian refugees—including 420 children—aboard the chartered cruise ship M/S Ambition. Another 1,200 refugees were subsequently lodged on a second chartered ship, the M/S Victoria. A high point of the effort came just before Christmas, when those aboard the Ambition put on a holiday show that was by all accounts joyous.

The arrangement with the Ambition will end along with the lease in March. But the Victoria is expected to continue providing shelter for another five months, perhaps longer.

And Scotland is not alone in this approach. Holland has been housing Ukrainian refugees aboard three cruise ships. Estonia has been using an outsized overnight ferry to house 1,500.

The Coalition for the Homeless in New York City has made known its opposition to the concept.

“To state the obvious, cruise ships are not designed or equipped to provide adequate long-term shelter and services to homeless people, including asylum seekers, and are unlikely to comply with well-established court orders and local laws governing New York’s right to shelter,” a spokeswoman told The Daily Beast.

But as long as cabins afford direct sunlight, accommodations aboard a luxury ship seem to meet the minimum legal requirements. And nobody could unfavorably compare cruise accommodations to a city shelter.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Robert Lager</div>
Courtesy of Robert Lager

According to a veteran Long Island ship broker, Robert Lager of Lager Maritime Corp, New York City could make arrangements with any number of ships, though leasing might not be the best option.

“Seems to me that the city has a long-term need and [for] much more than even just one ship,” Lager said. “Long term, [it’s] probably cheaper to buy.”

Lager figures that a sale could be completed within weeks.

“It’s generally as fast as the buyer wants to move,” he said.“ Actual delivery depends on where the ship is.”

New York Harbor has various possible berths, including a Brooklyn pier that is equipped to provide a ship with direct power instead of having the ship generate it by idling its huge engines, spewing pollution.

“Like 500 buses on diesel,” says Ibrahim Desooky, a Cornell-trained designer who has studied and confirmed the feasibility of converting luxury cruise ships into affordable housing.

Among the vessels that Lager has available is a 642-foot luxury cruise ship with 485 cabins that could comfortably house 1,000 people or more. Interior rooms could serve as on-site offices for various governmental and nonprofit assistance agencies. There are dining and laundry facilities. There is also a theater such as the one where the Ukrainian refugees put on the holiday show in Scotland.

Lager figures the city could have the ship for around $20 million, about the cost of six Brooklyn brownstones and considerably less than it would cost to shelter that many people in other circumstances in New York.

“Historically, it’s a great price,” he said.

He also has a number of other ships available.

“We have a 880-foot ship,” he said. “We have a 915-foot cruise ship. We have an 857-foot cruise ship. We have a bunch of ’em.”

Lager understands that such an undertaking would encounter all kinds of bureaucratic red tape and complications involving safety and maintenance. But the mayor is still the mayor.

“My feeling is if the mayor really wanted to push it and put in a serious effort and got people involved… they could probably do it,” Lager said.

If such a deal were to go through and the ship was moored at the logical place with electric power in Brooklyn, that is also where Lady Liberty faces. The migrants who gaze out at her would see her gazing right back at them in silent welcome.

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