After a two-month journey from South America to the U.S. Border and a two-day bus ride from Texas to New York City, immigrants who spoke with City Limits just wanted a bite to eat and a place to rest. “I just want to work and get ahead,” one recently-arrived man said.
After two months on the road and two days on a bus, the men sitting in the concrete courtyard outside New York City’s homeless men’s intake shelter were hungry.
Seven hours earlier, a bus from Texas had deposited the four men, along with a few dozen other recently arrived immigrants, at Port Authority—the latest political stunt by that state’s conservative governor, Greg Abbott, in response to the loosening of restrictions at the Southern Border. The men then made their way to the intake facility on East 30th Street with the help of a nonprofit organization, they said. Inside the scaffolding-encased space, they took out slim fig bars in silver packaging, the last of the rations they received for the ride.
“We have nothing,” said Jose Rodriguez, one of the men, as he tugged on his St. Peter’s College basketball t-shirt and white sweatpants.“These were donated when we got to Texas [because] we were robbed.”
Rodriguez, 40, limped as he walked from a ledge to a picnic table. He showed off wounds on his legs, the result, he said, of a fall during a two-month journey from Venezuela, mostly by foot, through jungle and along highways to the Southern Border. He said he wanted to find work—“anything will do, especially construction”—so he could send money back to his kids.
But in the immediate term, Rodriguez just wanted a bite to eat and a place to rest. His cell phone was dead—not that it mattered much. He didn’t know anyone in New York City, aside from the compatriots he had traveled there with, he said.
On Friday, staff at the 30th Street intake facility told Rodriguez and other recently-arrived migrants in the courtyard that there was no space left for them at New York City’s largest shelter. Instead, a bus would come and transport them to another facility in Brooklyn, he and the others said they were told. But the next day, Rodriguez spoke with City Limits by phone and said he had been referred to a hotel for an overnight stay and returned to the intake site in the morning.
New York City’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and the Mayor’s Office did not respond when asked how many of the immigrants who arrived on the Abbott bus Friday entered the shelter system. Many, presumably, linked up with friends or family. Others continued on to other destinations.
But in recent months, a growing number of newly arrived immigrants, many of them asylum-seekers from Venezuela, have made their way to intake facilities and the DHS shelter system. Mayor Eric Adams first announced the increase on July 19, a day after his administration broke the law by allowing some of those families to stay overnight in a Bronx intake office, but before they disclosed the violation to legal observers and the media. Adams’ initial statements touched off national news coverage, but also led to accusations that he was using the immigrant shelter entrants to obscure his own failures on homeless policy.
Adams pinned the rise in immigrants entering DHS shelters—a number he puts at 4,000, though that is an imprecise estimate—on Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who have been commissioning buses to Washington D.C. for newly-arriving immigrants since April. The two governors denied for weeks that they were sending buses to New York City.
Recently arrived immigrants in homeless shelters have told City Limits they came to the five boroughs with the help of nonprofits that paid for their tickets. But on Friday, Abbott, who is running for a third term as governor, made good on Adams’ claims and said he would start sending people to New York City, too.
The decision threatens to further strain city shelter capacity—already tight before the rise in immigrants. New York City has a unique right to shelter that enables anyone in need to request and receive a bed. Most who turn to the shelter system do so for economic reasons: they cannot afford rent in the country’s most expensive housing market.
More than 63,000 people stayed in a shelter run by DHS or another city agency in June, according to monthly data tracked by City Limits. The number of people who spend the night in DHS shelters for single adults, adult families and families with children surpassed 50,000 last week, marking a rise of about 5,200 people since Adams’ began his term.
Even before pinpointing an increase in immigrants seeking services, Adams’ administration has struggled to keep up with shelter demand. He nixed deals for some new, politically fraught facilities early on before tapping commercial hotel owners, including a pair of notorious landlords, to add extra space in June. The shelter vacancy rate in the family shelter system was at 1 percent last month, according to the Legal Aid Society. On Monday, Adams announced an emergency declaration allowing the city to quickly tap nonprofits to open an immigrant referral center and new shelters while bypassing typical review and contracting processes.
He has urged the federal government to reimburse the city’s costs.
“We already have a housing crisis,” he said Aug. 4. “Help us here, because not only is it housing, it’s translation services. It’s education. It is food. It is so much that goes into this.”
Some Department of Homeland Security officials may be further fueling confusion. According to news reports, agents have provided incomplete government documents with doodles and false addresses to immigrants who say New York City is their final destination after crossing the Southern Border and entering custody. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security did not provide a response for this story.
And Abbott said he will continue shipping people to New York City—despite the $1,400 per rider price tag reported by NBC in June—in addition to the nonprofit groups that are arranging transportation to five boroughs. The bus Friday carried 54 immigrants from various parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, the organizations that received them and the immigrants themselves.
City officials and nonprofit organizations, including the relief group Grannies Respond, welcomed the new New Yorkers with food and support. About 15 of them continued on to other destinations, Grannies Respond Executive Director Catherine Cole told City Limits. Some who got off at Port Authority planned to head to other locations, including Portland, OR, Atlanta and Miami.
At least one child needed immediate support. “A couple of them didn’t feel well,” Cole said, describing how a young girl who was diabetic did not have medication and was taken to a local hospital.
Another Abbott-chartered bus with about 50 people arrived at Port Authority Sunday morning. This time, only 14 people got off, with the rest heading to other destinations.
For those who stay in New York City, the next leg of their journey will at least come with a social safety net that, while at times weak and fraying, is nevertheless superior to most everywhere else in the country.
City Limits talked with eight men outside the 30th Street shelter who said they arrived in the city on buses from Texas Friday morning. All said they came from Venezuela or Colombia, and three, including Rodriguez, spoke at length about their journeys.
A man named Jonathan, 33, said he began his trip from Perú and traveled through Colombia before being robbed on the Panama-side of the Darién Gap, the border between the two countries. The bandits took his cell phone.
Jonathan, who asked not to use his last name, said immigration officials allowed him to use the internet during his brief time in custody and he managed to contact a friend in New York City. The friend told him he could not meet him upon his arrival, so Jonathan looked up the address of the men’s intake shelter and decided to head there after arriving at Port Authority.
“My friend and others had already told me about the shelter, where I could stay for a few days to avoid being on the street,” Jonathan said “And after I get a job I could leave.”
The first obstacle for Jonathan is rescheduling his immigration court appearance. As it stands, he will have to appear before a judge in Utah. He said he will try to change the location to New York.
A 33-year-old man named Pedro who sat in the 30th Street courtyard said he never planned to come to New York City before he was offered the bus ride.
“My plan was Miami,” said Pedro, who also asked not to use his last name. “But people in Texas told me that in New York they could help me relocate.”
Now he is not sure where he will go. “I just want to work and get ahead,” he said.
One local nonprofit administrator said just under 20 percent of the 250 families in the organization’s shelters were recently-arrived immigrants. Another shelter director who talked with City Limits said about 20 adults across their organization’s three shelters had just entered the United States. A staff member at a women’s shelter said their facility had no apparent recently-arrived immigrants. The numbers vary by shelter type, with facilities equipped with intensive on-site services more likely to take on newly arriving immigrants, officials said.
Other immigrants with and without legal residency status have entered the shelter because of economic reasons—the main driver of homelessness in New York City. They were evicted or left overcrowded apartments, they said. One woman who spoke with City Limits last month outside a Manhattan hotel leased as a shelter said she has lived in the U.S. for two and a half years after moving from Peru but left her Queens apartment after being harassed by her landlord. A man from Colombia named Ismael stood outside the 30th Street intake center and said in Spanish that he has lived in the U.S. for 26 years but became homeless because he could no longer afford rent. He said he was looking for construction work after scraping by on odd jobs in Orange County and later New York City.
The current spike in newly arrived immigrants entering shelter appears to be a relative anomaly. Most years, only a fraction of the people entering DHS shelters come from outside New York City, past records obtained by City Limits show. But the increase comes at a specifically challenging time, with the shelter system absorbing a customary summer surge likely worsened by record-high rents, deepening inflation and administrative obstacles to permanent housing for homeless New Yorkers.
The newly arrived immigrants are entitled to the same shelter opportunities as anyone else, said Legal Aid and Coalition for the Homeless. “Regardless of who these people are, where they are from, or for what cynical reason they are being sent here, New York is a sanctuary and right to shelter city, and the city must ensure that beds and critical services are immediately available to meet any demand,” the two organizations, which monitor shelters under landmark court orders, said in a statement.
Likewise, New York Immigration Coalition Executive Director Murad Awawdeh slammed Abbott’s bus strategy as a “self-manufactured” crisis, but said New York City would meet the challenge.
“Greg Abbott may not value the safety and well-being of newcomer immigrant families, but New York always has and always will be a welcoming city for all immigrants,” Awawdeh said.