Faced with threats, Staten Island church backs down from plans for migrant shelter

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After receiving “disturbing threats” from anti-migrant groups and a letter in opposition from local elected officials, a NYC church is backing down from plans to house migrants.

St. John’s Episcopal Church in Staten Island has canceled plans to convert some of its space into a shelter for asylum seekers, the church’s priest said in a statement.

It’s not the first time Staten Island has seen a migrant shelter called off. The borough’s elected officials have gone after several migrant shelters in the past year, rallying crowds of outraged neighbors. This time, it’s coming as political tensions heat up as the 2024 presidential campaign is underway.

“After careful consideration, Saint John’s Church has made the difficult decision to not move forward with our asylum seekers shelter ministry,” Rev. Hank Tuell, Priest-in-Charge of the church wrote on Thursday.

“At Saint John’s Church, our mission is rooted in compassion. But while we were working to fulfill our duty to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger, I received disturbing threats from anti-immigrant groups, who were sadly encouraged by several of our officials.”

The statement did not say who made the threats or name the officials; Tuell declined to elaborate.

Tuell wrote that the church, located blocks from the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Bridge, will continue other outreach programs, as well as “embody the principles of love, understanding, and service that define our spiritual journey — including forgiving those who attacked our community for trying to care for our new neighbors.”

The shelter would have housed around 50 migrant men on the first floor of a building that also houses a senior living center, according to elected officials and the SI Advance.

The decision came just under a week after a group of local elected officials wrote to Tuell — and Mayor Adams — threatening legal action if the plan to house migrants went through. They wrote that the migrant shelter would violate the conditions of a tax credit, among other concerns.

“The proposed plan to house over 50 migrants between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-five is a slap in the face to your senior residents and the community which is entitled to a shared elderly daycare center that is open to all residents,” the letter, sent Jan. 19, reads. “We will use all legal measures at our disposal to ensure that you uphold the contractual agreement and moral obligation made to these seniors and to our community.”

The letter was signed by Borough President Vito Fossella, Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, District Attorney Michael McMahon, State Sen. Jessica Scarcella-Spanton, Assemblyman Sam Pirozzolo, and Councilwoman Kamillah Hanks.

Migrants placed in shelters located in Southern Brooklyn and Staten Island — bastions of conservative support in New York City — have been met with anger, protests and even harassment, as the Daily News previously reported.

Last summer, protesters flooded the streets around St. John’s Villa, a shuttered school on Staten Island that was used to house migrants that was mired with controversy and counter protests until it was shut down by the FDNY in October.

“With the seniors, it just was not a good fit,” Malliotakis, who has in the past called for the borough to secede over the migrants issue, told The News. “And, aside from that, there were building code issues, fire code issues, and so we laid that all out in our letter explaining that. We proposed that we would take legal action if we had to, on behalf of the seniors.”

Immigration has become a central campaign issue as both local and federal officials stumble on how to handle it. Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, is kickstarting his campaign with familiar “build the wall” rhetoric as waves of migrants flow into New York City.

“We thought it was a mistake from day one and we could prepare to fight on behalf of the residents to try to stop it from happening,” Vito Fossella, the borough president, said. “So that’s a general proposition. And then case by case is that some are more egregious than others… they’re all bad, in my opinion.”

Fossella said that he was not aware of specific threats made to the church, adding that he thinks Tuell should come out and say who threatened him.

Elsewhere in the city, churches and places of worship have stepped in to house and help newly arrived migrants with significantly less backlash.

“They come in, for us, more people means more business,” said Gino Lioniri, owner of nearby Rosebank Pizza. “Everybody come from somewhere, somehow.”