New York City

Advocates clarify the right to shelter stands in NYC – after Eric Adams seemed to question it again

The mayor spoke about the crisis of asylum-seekers coming to New York City on top of the city’s existing homelessness crisis.

New York City’s shelter system is under strain, as some 13,000 people – many fleeing violence and economic turmoil in Venezuela – have come to the five boroughs in recent months.

New York City’s shelter system is under strain, as some 13,000 people – many fleeing violence and economic turmoil in Venezuela – have come to the five boroughs in recent months. Jeff Coltin

For the second time in two weeks, New York City Mayor Eric Adams seemed to publicly question whether the city’s legal obligations to provide shelter to anyone who seeks it would apply to the recent influx of asylum-seekers – prompting yet another clean-up to clarify that the right to shelter still applies. 

At an unrelated press conference in Inwood, Manhattan, Adams was asked if the tent shelter planned for the mostly South American migrants would comply with the rules governing the city’s right to shelter. It likely would not. The Orchard Beach parking lot location is also far from social services, has limited public transportation and is prone to flooding.

“We have to separate the two,” Adams said. “We have a shelter obligation that we’re fulfilling every day. Everyone knows that. And we have a migrant, asylum-seeker crisis. It is our belief that we need to treat this like the crisis that it is.”

Asked again, Adams reiterated: “The migrant crisis is outside of the housing initiative that we’re doing, in seeing the right to shelter,” he said. “These are two different entities.”

Under decades of legal precedent, the city has to provide shelter meeting certain standards each night to anyone who asks. Now, the city’s shelter system is under strain, as some 13,000 people – many fleeing violence and economic turmoil in Venezuela – have come to the five boroughs in recent months. Some have been sent as a political stunt by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who is trying to have Democratic-run cities and states bear more responsibility. But the city has fallen short in those responsibilities, failing to provide shelter overnight to more than five dozen people in total over separate incidents in the past months. 

In one case, the city admitted some 60 asylum-seekers weren’t given beds the night of Sept. 12. Adams released a statement at the time, saying that given the increase in people coming without housing secured, “the city’s prior practices, which never contemplated the bussing of thousands of people into New York City, must be reassessed.” 

The statement confused stakeholders at the time – was Adams calling to end the city’s right to shelter? The mayor’s press secretary tied himself in a knot, saying the law wasn’t being assessed, but the city’s practices were.

At Tuesday’s press conference, the mayor seemed to be providing clarity on what he meant, saying that the “refugee crisis” has left the city scrambling. “This is not normal times. Let’s be clear. This is not something that’s going to be done long term. This is not a shelter issue,” Adams said. “This is a humanitarian, migrant crisis, humanitarian crisis. So we’re going to pivot and shift as needed.”

Adams' press office didn’t immediately respond to a request to expand on the mayor’s remarks. But advocates responsible for enforcing the city’s right to shelter said the mayor wasn’t arguing that any rights should be rolled back. Rather, he was just acknowledging that the crisis of asylum-seekers was a separate, additional crisis to the ongoing problem of homelessness in the city. The city has said that “the Orchard Beach facility is completely voluntary. You can still seek shelter in the traditional shelter system if you choose to do so,” explained Kathryn Kliff, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project. The tents filled with cots won’t meet legal requirements for a bed frame, a mattress, a locker and more, but “if you can still access a bed in the DHS shelter system, it is complying with a right to shelter.” 

Kliff isn’t giving the administration a pass – “we have a lot of questions that are outstanding,” she explained, but said the mayor’s office has “assured us they are not questioning the right to shelter.”

The Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless released a joint statement Tuesday saying as much. 

“New York City’s right to shelter is explicit: Anyone in need of a bed, including asylum seekers, is entitled to one, and this administration has pledged to fully comply with these well-established court orders which ensure this fundamental right,” the press release read in part. “The Administration has also assured us that asylum seekers will retain the ability to enter the Department of Homeless Services shelter system at any time.”

While shelter space is tight right now, the homeless advocates also encouraged the Adams administration to free up space by moving people currently staying in shelters into permanent housing by reforming voucher programs. “City Hall could unilaterally act on this today, and it is precisely the bold action that homeless New Yorkers and asylum seekers need and deserve.”