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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Chaos, fury, mistakes: 600 days inside New York’s migrant crisis

Migrants, many from Venezuela, fill out asylum and Temporary Protected Status applications at the Red Cross in New York, Nov. 20, 2023. For more than 600 days, New York City has scrambled to house thousands of migrants arriving from the southern border, throwing the city into a crisis made even harder by missed opportunities. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

By Andy Newman and Dana Rubinstein

Nearly 70,000 migrants crammed into hundreds of emergency shelters. People sleeping on floors, or huddled on sidewalks in the December cold. Families packed into giant tents at the edge of the city, miles from schools or services.

And New York City is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a month to care for them all.

This fall, an official in the administration of Mayor Eric Adams referred to the city’s obligation to house and feed the 500 new migrants still arriving each day as “our new normal.”

It is a normal that could scarcely have been imagined 18 months ago, when migrants began gravitating to the city in large numbers from the nation’s southern border.

The migrant crisis in New York is the product of some factors beyond the city’s control, including global upheaval, a federal government letting migrants enter in record numbers without giving most of them a way to work legally, and a unique local rule requiring the city to offer a bed to every homeless person.

But the dimensions of the problem — the $2.4 billion cost so far, the harsh conditions, the number of migrants stuck in shelters — can also be traced to actions taken, and not taken, by the Adams administration, The New York Times found in dozens of interviews with officials, advocates and migrants.

As the city raced to improvise a system that has processed more than 150,000 people since last year, it stumbled in myriad ways, many never reported before.

For most of the crisis, the city failed to take basic steps to help migrants move out of shelters and find homes. It waited a year to help large numbers of migrants file for asylum, likely closing a pathway to legal employment for thousands.

The city has signed more than $2 billion in no-bid contracts, some with vendors that have been accused of abusing migrants. It has paid more than twice as much to house each migrant household as it did to house a homeless family before the crisis.

And again and again, Adams, a Democrat, seemed to make his own job harder by berating state and federal officials whose help he sought.

“The timeline is a series of late responses and antagonistic postures,” said Christine Quinn, head of the city’s biggest network of family shelters and a former City Council speaker.

On the warm spring morning of April 13, 2022, shortly after 8 a.m., a bus pulled up to a corner in Washington, D.C. Passengers got out looking lost, clutching manila folders of paperwork after a 26-hour ride from the Mexican border.

At least six men continued to New York City, in a van hired by Catholic Charities.

They were, in a sense, pioneers: passengers on the first migrant bus sent north by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas as a stunt to protest border policy, and the first group of those migrants headed to New York.

More migrants came as the coronavirus pandemic subsided, fleeing destabilized countries. Venezuelans, whom the United States did not deport in the early days of the influx, arrived by the tens of thousands. Others came from Ecuador, Senegal, Mauritania, China.

As the vacancy rate at family shelters dropped below 1%, officials scrambled to avoid defying the court decree guaranteeing a “right to shelter.”

Julia Savel, then a spokesperson for the city’s social services commissioner, Gary Jenkins, said that Jenkins pressured her to hide a looming disaster from the public.

(Jenkins, who later resigned, said last week of Savel’s assertion, “That is not true at all.”)

By July 12, 2022, the situation was dire. On the phone with a relative, Savel broke down in tears: “I really think we’re about to break the law.”

A week later, Adams made his first extensive comments on the migrants. He said the city “welcomes newcomers with open arms.”

The mayor added that the city had “a moral — and legal — obligation to house anyone who is experiencing homelessness.” He was confident help would come soon from Washington.

Savel visited the family intake office in the Bronx and found chaos. “Everyone coming in spoke Spanish; everyone working there spoke English. There was a woman in labor nine months pregnant sitting on the floor,” she said. “Children were crying because they were starving; we did not have enough food. It was wall-to-wall bodies.”

The city had violated its duty to house everyone. When the story broke, it had a minor scandal on its hands.

At one City Hall meeting that summer, nonprofits told officials that they should interview all the migrants to figure out what services could get them into permanent housing, according to three advocates who attended. The city and its contractors began doing some of this, but city officials acknowledged it was a year before they undertook a more comprehensive effort.

One day in early October 2022, it rained in the Bronx.

Less than an inch fell. But puddles formed in the parking lot at Orchard Beach, where a city contractor who had built part of the Trump-era border wall was erecting a tent complex for migrants.

Critics had warned that the lot was flood-prone and impractically remote. But the migrant population had doubled, to 12,000. The city, desperate for emergency housing, had “looked at 50 locations and found the best location,” the mayor said.

Besides, he said, “People live in flood zones.”

City Hall about-faced and found a new spot: Randall’s Island, farther south. But then migration temporarily slowed. The facility sat mostly empty for a month until the city took it down.

It was a herky-jerky, costly approach to crisis management that would come to typify the city’s struggle to keep up with the ebb and flow of migrants.

That September, the agencies that might have been expected to run a homelessness emergency, the Department of Homeless Services or the Office of Emergency Management, said they were too overwhelmed. City Hall held a meeting and asked agencies to volunteer.

There was a pause.

“We’ll do it,” said Mitchell Katz, the head of the city’s public hospitals. Early in the pandemic, his agency ran isolation hotels. This seemed like a “very similar undertaking,” he noted.

The hospital operator had been praised for its COVID response, but it had also made costly mistakes. As the hospital agency built tent dormitories and converted hotels into shelters, it returned to many of the same companies it used during the pandemic, though they lacked experience housing homeless people or serving migrants.

In May, a reporter asked Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom how many of the 72,000 migrants who had passed through the portals of the shelter system had applied for asylum. “Very few,” she answered, adding “We’re going to be working on that.”

Why so few, the reporter asked.

“They probably didn’t know where to get connected to services, didn’t know who to give their paperwork to,” Williams-Isom said.

It was a surprising admission for City Hall’s point person on the migrant response.

Applying for asylum — a complex, lengthy process with a one-year deadline — is one of few paths for people who cross the border to work legally.

The city had begged the federal government to expedite work authorization. But for a year, the city did little itself to get migrants on track to work, opening an asylum help center only in late June. If it had acted sooner, state officials wrote, “It is likely that thousands more migrants would be able to work today.”

The sluggishness was part of a pattern. For most of the crisis, the city seemed to ignore calls to provide more services to help migrants move out of shelters faster, a lapse that grew more costly with time.

Keeping a migrant family in a shelter for a month costs about $12,000. Moving 10,000 families out of shelter would save over $1 billion a year. But the city often appeared so overwhelmed trying to find a bed for everyone each night that it had little bandwidth for planning.

It was only when hospital officials opened an arrival center in May at the Roosevelt, a faded but once-grand midtown hotel, that the city began more thoroughly canvassing migrants to find out what they needed to become self-sufficient.

“We’re starting to have those conversations now,” Dr. Ted Long, who leads the hospital agency’s migrant response, told the City Council in August.

Conditions at some shelters were desperate. Migrants were housed for weeks in “respite centers” that sometimes lacked basics like showers. One shelter in a converted Manhattan office building had no air conditioning.

In September, Adams said that without more federal aid, “this issue will destroy New York City.” He called for a 15% city budget cut, citing migrant costs.

But the mayor’s critics said the budgetary damage was partly self-inflicted. Throughout the crisis, the city has relied heavily on no-bid emergency contracts with private companies that increased costs dramatically.

Before the migrant influx, the city paid an average of $188 per day to shelter a family with children. Now it is paying nearly $400 for each migrant “household,” which includes single adults.

Some of the more eye-popping charges have been from DocGo, a medical services firm enlisted by the hospital system to run services at the Roosevelt. During the pandemic, DocGo swabbed half a million noses for the city’s testing program. For the migrants, the hospitals paid DocGo millions to handle jobs far beyond its expertise, including security, casework and school enrollment.

DocGo was allowed to charge $33 a day per migrant for shelter meals, triple some other vendors’ rates. It charged $150 an hour for registered nurses while another provider, MedRite, charged $80.

This spring, hospital leaders recommended DocGo for a $432 million contract with the city’s housing department that included moving migrants to upstate motels. It hired unregistered security guards, gave some migrants fake work authorization papers, and guards threatened migrants with violence, some migrants said.

Now, DocGo faces investigations by the state attorney general and the city comptroller.

DocGo officials have pushed back against criticism of their management of the migrant contracts. The city has said it took the allegations seriously and would cooperate with investigations.

This month, the comptroller, Brad Lander, restricted the mayor’s emergency power to contract for migrant services without review. His spokesperson pointed to “extensive failures” by the city.

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