Why New York Is Resorting to Tents to House Surge of Migrants

As migrants from Latin America poured into New York City this spring, the city tried to make space for them in its homeless shelters. It was not enough.

In August, as Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas sent buses of migrants directly to the city’s main bus terminal, New York’s mayor, Eric Adams, started opening new shelters at a frantic pace: nearly two dozen in six weeks. Fifteen just in the past week. It was not enough.

On Thursday, as the number of migrants in shelters soared above 10,000, Mr. Adams announced that the city would open emergency centers to temporarily house the new arrivals — including several barrackslike, winterized tents the size of airplane hangars that will house single adults at a parking lot in the Bronx.

“This is not an everyday homelessness crisis, but a humanitarian crisis that requires a different approach,” he said in a statement.

The population of the city’s main homeless shelter system has been climbing for months at a rate faster than at any time in recent memory. Since mid-May, it has jumped by more than 25 percent, to nearly 58,000. Just in the last week, the shelter population has grown by more than 2,200. In the past, it took years, not months, for such large increases to take place.

The speed at which migrants are arriving is only part of the problem.

The city is also contending with past decisions to close some buildings used to house homeless people and with hurdles to opening and operating shelters that have bedeviled mayors for decades and have defied easy solutions.

New York has long had a “right to shelter,” which requires a bed to be provided to anyone in the city who needs one. Mr. Adams said last week he wants to reassess the ways in which the city satisfies that right, but he said turning away the migrants is not an option.

The city must be “creative” in finding ways to house the migrants, he said this week. “We’re not going to leave any stone unturned,” he said on Monday.

As recently as 2019, the city’s homeless shelters held 4,000 more people than they do now, without having to resort to tents or — as Mr. Adams said he was considering earlier this week — cruise ships. But it is impossible to simply turn the clock back to 2019.

Mayor Eric Adams said the city will leave no stone unturned in its efforts to shelter the migrants.Credit…Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

The speed of the influx poses such a challenge because the shelter system is not monolithic: It is a collection of over 300 buildings of widely varied use, configuration and condition, the vast majority of them rented from dozens of private landlords and operated by a constellation of dozens of nonprofit groups.

Turning a building into a homeless shelter is not a simple process, either. It can involve extensive modification and require approvals from a host of city and state agencies.

The migrants began to arrive just after the administration of Mr. Adams’s predecessor, Bill de Blasio, had completed a yearslong effort to stop using hundreds of what it called “low-quality” shelter buildings. The city halted the use of hotels to house families with children. It removed from its shelter portfolio more than 3,600 apartments that typically lack the services that homeless people need.

Mr. de Blasio’s plan called for opening 90 new dedicated shelter buildings by the end of next year. Dozens of them have yet to come online, many of them delayed for various reasons, including community opposition.

The migrants also happened to arrive at a moment when the city shelter population had fallen to its lowest level in a decade. The population drop was concentrated in the family shelters, now taking in most of the migrants. A pandemic eviction moratorium that lasted two years kept thousands of people from losing their apartments, and as the city saw the need for family shelters drop, it closed them.

The moratorium ended in January; housing advocates predicted a spike in the family-shelter population. At first, it did not happen, but in mid-April, the numbers started to climb — whether because of an increase in migrants or evictions is not clear.

The Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit that monitors conditions in the shelters by court decree, noticed that the vacancy rate in the family shelters was getting low and urged the city to expand capacity. “We needed there to be enough cushion in the system to accommodate new entrants on very short notice,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director for the coalition.

The city struggled to move fast enough. For at least one night in July, some migrant families slept on the floor or in chairs at an office.

The space crunch was exacerbated by another problem: The city has been taking longer and longer to move people from shelter to permanent housing. The average length of stay in a family shelter increased from 443 days in fiscal year 2020 to 534 days in fiscal year 2022. Most of the migrants do not qualify for housing subsidy programs because of their immigration status, a fact that is now compounding this delay.

All this is happening as the city deals with a cash crunch. Last week, Mr. Adams ordered all agencies to cut their city-funded expenses by 3 percent this year. It typically costs between $135 and $190 per day to house someone in a shelter, and the bill could run into hundreds of millions of dollars. The city has asked the state and federal government for help.

On Thursday, officials offered a few basic details about the two temporary “emergency response and relief centers” it plans to build.

The first, for single adults, mostly men, will house 1,000 people in five long tents set up in a parking lot at Orchard Beach in the Bronx. The city distributed a photo of another emergency shelter as an example of the design: dozens of cots lined up in rows.

The layout of the second center, for families with children, is still being determined. The city is required to give each family its own room.

Both centers are intended to be a temporary stop for all arriving migrants, offering dining halls, showers, medical and mental health providers and legal information. The city intends to keep people at the centers for no more than four days.

Kathleen Cash, an advocate at the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center, called the pictures of what the centers might look like “devastating.”

“Opening short-term municipal refugee camps through a separate city bureaucracy — while the mayor has repeatedly failed to honor the right to shelter, and has announced plans to ‘reassess’ it — is the kind of approach many feared this administration would take,” she said.

The mayor described the efforts differently. “Like the generations that came to our city before,” Mr. Adams said in his statement, “New York will provide the thousands now coming to our city with the foundation to build a better life.”

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