Mayor Adams conceded Tuesday that his administration’s controversial migrant tent camp in the Bronx may violate local right-to-shelter rules that have tripped him up several times this summer as the city struggles to accommodate waves of Latin American asylum seekers.
The decades-old right-to-shelter law requires the city to provide a bed to anyone who needs one, and also stipulates certain benchmark amenities, such as a set amount of space between beds and access to lockers, laundry and mail services.
Amid an enormous influx of migrants in recent months, Adams has repeatedly said his administration must “reassess” the law, though he hasn’t specified how or which aspects of it he’d target for reform.
During a press conference in Manhattan Tuesday morning, Adams shed some light on the matter as he said for the first time that he does not believe right-to-shelter rules should apply to the tent facility that the city is erecting in the Orchard Beach parking lot to house hundreds of migrants.
“The migrant crisis is outside of the housing initiative that we are doing for right-to-shelter,” Adams told reporters when asked if the Orchard Beach site will comply with right-to-shelter protocols. “These are two different entities. We are dealing with a humanitarian crisis that was created by human hands.”
Earlier in the news conference, he said, “This is not a shelter issue. This is a humanitarian, refugee, migrant crisis.”
By differentiating between homelessness and migration, Adams could be staking out a legal framework for why the city should be able to skirt the right-to-shelter law when it comes to housing the thousands of migrants who have arrived in the city in recent months after crossing into the U.S. from Mexico in hopes of seeking asylum.
According to city data, roughly 10,500 migrants are staying in city shelters every night, and hundreds more are arriving every week, putting intense strain on the system.
The Orchard Beach location is expected to serve as an intake center, where 1,000 migrants could stay at a time for upward of 96 hours before being assigned shelter beds or other permanent housing, according to City Hall. Adams administration officials have said the city plans to open at least one more tent site to shelter migrant families with kids.
But the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless, advocacy groups appointed by a court to serve as right-to-shelter watchdogs, have said they may sue the city if its housing plans for asylum seekers attempt to circumvent the law.
In a phone interview after Adams’ press conference, Kathryn Kliff, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project, said the administration has told the advocacy groups that the Orchard Beach facility will be “voluntary” and that anyone who’s placed there can instead opt to get a bed in a shelter at any point.
“But from a right-to-shelter perspective, we are concerned about how the city will make sure that people will know that they can go elsewhere if they want to,” she said.
That being the case, Kliff also questioned why the Orchard Beach location is necessary. “We are not sure what the [facility] will accomplish,” she said. “A lot of these things could’ve happened without a tent at Orchard Beach.”
Earlier this summer, the administration failed on two separate occasions to provide beds for dozens of homeless people and asylum seekers in apparent violation of the right-to-shelter law. On the second occasion earlier this month, some 60 men were forced to sleep on floors and benches at a Manhattan intake center due to the shelter flub.
In addition to the right-to-shelter dilemma, elected officials in the Bronx have raised concern about the safety of the Orchard Beach site.
The entire parking lot where city workers started building the tent facilities this week is designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a “special flood hazard area,” meaning it could be at great risk of dangerous storm surges.
With hurricane season kicking up, Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson said Monday that the parking lot is thereby “not the ideal location” for a tent camp and confirmed she has raised concerns about it to Adams’ team.
Asked Tuesday if he’s concerned about the weather-related vulnerabilities of the site, Adams deferred to Zach Iscol, his commissioner of emergency management, who joined him at the press conference.
“Should a coastal storm come, we would evacuate people as we would in any other zone. … They would go into the storm shelter system, just like anyone who’s being evacuated,” Iscol said.
Iscol said the city is also “setting up protection measures” against flooding in the parking lot.
A Bronx elected official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly, said the issue of the Orchard Beach facility extends beyond flood risks and right-to-shelter, though.
“These migrants need access to jobs,” the official said. “Why bring them to the borough with the highest level of unemployment and little resources?”