Overwhelmed with migrant arrivals, NYC has planned tent shelter to be built in a Bronx flood zone

Road leading to the isolated Orchard Beach parking lot has been dubbed by locals “Lake Orchard.”

The parking lot, marked here with a star, is in a FEMA flood zone.

The parking lot, marked here with a star, is in a FEMA flood zone. FEMA

The proposed site of a recently announced tent facility for newly arrived migrants is located in a far-flung coastal parking lot in the Bronx – an area prone to flooding.

The shelter will be erected in the Orchard Beach parking lot and will house up to 1,000 adults at a time, New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ office announced Thursday morning. There will be a second facility as well, which will house families with children, but the location hasn’t been confirmed yet. Described as “humanitarian emergency response and relief centers,” a press release said the facilities will shelter and support asylum-seekers on a temporary basis. Two photo examples of what the Orchard Beach facility would look like showed multiple sweeping white tents packed together in a parking lot. Inside, uniform rows of cots stretched from one end of the structure to the other.

Orchard Beach is prone to flooding, and the Atlantic hurricane season, which will run through the end of November, recently picked up momentum. The entire parking lot area is designated as a “special flood hazard area” on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood map, and is entirely within the city’s “Zone 1” hurricane evacuation designation. But even a normal rainstorm could potentially be an issue, according to an East Bronx political leader who asked for anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. 

“I’m baffled by the whole thing. Flooding is a big concern, the weather, a transportation desert. And all the amenities that you would want somebody to get while they’re getting social services are not there,” the pol told City & State, adding that Orchard Beach has always had issues with flooding and pooling during regular rain storms. 

Last year, The Bronx Times reported that several residents of the nearby City Island sent a letter in 2018 to a few city agencies including the Department of Transportation outlining the drainage problems on several roads and how they’ve led to dangerous conditions. The entrance to Orchard Beach at Park Drive between Orchard Beach Road and City Island Road in particular has posed such an issue that some have informally dubbed it “Lake Orchard.”

“Everybody knows that it’s one of the more vulnerable geographies in the New York area,” said Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “It’s disappointing that this is the location that has been settled upon.” 

He added that the city must put strong contingency plans in place now, because it is entirely possible for a storm to strike New York City in the months to come.

City officials say hundreds of people continue to arrive in New York City each day. They are primarily coming from Venezuela, fleeing violence and economic instability, and can legally reside in the United States while seeking a more permanent status. Many asylum-seekers have been bused from Texas after crossing the southern border under a political ploy by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Under a long-standing court ruling, New York City is obligated to provide a bed to every person who requests one. The city’s shelter system has been overwhelmed by the increased numbers in recent months – more than 10,000 people, according to Adams’ office – and City Hall has been desperate for temporary solutions to meet its legal obligations and to live up to New York’s reputation as a sanctuary for immigrants.  

Since the city’s announcement, elected officials and immigration and homeless advocacy organizations have voiced concerns about the planned facility. New York City Council Member Shahana Hanif, Immigration Committee chair, likened the structure to a refugee camp and said the photos show that it “will inevitably fail to meet the bare minimum standards” of the shelter system. The Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless released a joint statement expressing deep concerns about any scenario that would place families with children in a congregate setting. State Sen. Jessica Ramos of Queens said she’s never seen the city offer anything like the tents to homeless New Yorkers in the past, Gothamist reported. 

A city spokesperson said that safety will be the top priority at the Orchard Beach facility and that all necessary measures will be taken to keep people safe – including from inclement weather. The tents will be climate controlled and weatherized, though additional details about what this will specifically look like have yet to be provided. The city has also emphasized that anyone staying within the center will do so on a temporary basis, likely around one to four days.

“This is something that we’re bringing to the table and it’s humanity, it’s making sure that the asylum-seekers have a safe, sanitary place to stay. This is a priority not only to myself, but certainly to the borough president and the mayor,” said Council Member Marjorie Velázquez, whose district encompasses Orchard Beach, after the publication of this story. “This will not be built overnight and I can reassure you that there’s a lot of conversation (taking place).”

Velázquez said it was essential that the city create an environment where asylum-seekers can get off the bus and have an opportunity to “stop and breathe” while receiving services like health checks. She confirmed that she also recently asked the city to increase the number of police officers from precincts covering the area – which she said are facing staffing shortages – to bolster public safety and resources for the community and any asylum-seekers who will be housed at Orchard Beach.

Kathryn Kliff, a staff attorney in The Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project, said the nonprofit and the Coalition for the Homeless recently sent a long list of questions to the city that underscore both organizations' concerns about the plans. Orchard Beach is an isolated area, a fair walk from public transportation, she said. Buses don’t go to the location during the off season, however, the city told City & State that transportation both to and from will be provided to asylum-seekers. 

“The location is not our first choice by any means,” Kliff said. “Obviously they wanted a large space for the type of facility they are envisioning, but being that far away from everything is certainly concerning to us, especially if people are going to be staying there for up to 96 hours, that's quite a few days, and people might need to do things and get things.”

Underscoring these concerns is the fact that many of the people who would seek shelter there are likely to have experienced an immense amount of trauma getting into the U.S. and making their way to New York City. Communal settings where large numbers of people are sheltered under a single roof aren’t the best environment for people to heal from trauma, nor are they always the safest place to be – especially for families with children, according to Kliff. 

“We appreciate the city dialoguing with us and we’re happy to try and help come up with solutions, but we do want to make sure that people’s legal rights are still being honored and that people are safe and in a situation where they can get the services they need.” Kliff said. “We still have a lot of questions about how that is going to work on a day-to-day basis.”