At a Council hearing short on details, officials from Mayor Eric Adams’ administration pinned the shelter population rise on newly arriving immigrants from the Southern Border.

Three men at tables in NYC Council chambers

Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit

Adams’ administration officials testified at an City Council oversight hearing Tuesday about the city’s shelter intake procedures.

New York City is now leasing 11 hotels for homeless families as the shelter population continues to rise amid record-high rents, lingering inflation and the well-publicized arrival of a number of asylum-seekers and other new immigrants.

Officials from Mayor Eric Adams’ administration disclosed the number of hotels rented out for families during a Council hearing Tuesday, just over seven months after the city phased out commercial lodgings for children following a substantial drop in the overall shelter population last year. City Limits first reported on the return to hotels last month.

But attempts by councilmembers to gain more concrete information about New York’s rising shelter census yielded little substantive information as the commissioners of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs pleaded ignorance when asked for specific details.

Adams and his agency heads have said that more than 4,000 newly arrived immigrants have entered the shelter system, or at least visited an intake facility, since May. On Tuesday, Department of Social Services (DSS) Commissioner Gary Jenkins, who oversees DHS,  repeated that estimate, but could not say how many of the new immigrants in shelters were children—a key consideration as the administration pins the rise in family homelessness on immigrants.

Jenkins told Bronx Councilmember Kevin Riley he would get back to him with specific data, reciting a common refrain throughout the proceedings that keeps concrete numbers out of the public record. DHS did not provide a response when asked by City Limits.

Overall, the DHS shelter census has increased from 46,591 people on Jan. 2 to 52,370 on Monday, according to data tracked each day by City Limits. The number of families with children in shelter has approached 10,000, up from less than 8,500 on Jan. 1.

“This uptick has been largely driven by an increasing migrant population seeking asylum,” Jenkins told the General Welfare Committee, adding that evictions, by contrast, have accounted for just 1 percent of people entering DHS shelter (The state’s eviction moratorium, in place during the pandemic to keep New Yorkers in their homes throughout the crisis, ended in January.)

Still, some advocates for homeless New Yorkers and a handful of councilmembers have questioned the figures that Adams and his agency heads have cited. In a statement ahead of the hearing, The Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless criticized the mayor’s“unsupported claims that recent increases in the shelter census are due primarily to an influx of asylum seekers.”

The two groups say they have unsuccessfully sought more complete information about the asylum-seeker tally from DHS—which does not ask for a person’s residency status at intake and instead relies on interviews and assumptions.

They also accused the Adams administration of using the presence of a certain number of immigrants to distract from broader problems with shelter capacity, rising homelessness and delayed move-outs into permanent housing. About 200 people a week are leaving shelters with housing vouchers, Jenkins told the Council. Meanwhile, he said, roughly 100 newly arriving immigrants are entering the system. That does not include an as yet untold number of New Yorkers seeking shelter for more traditional economic reasons—namely, that the rent is too high.

“I really hope that you can get clear data to understand what’s happening,” said Councilmember Lincoln Restler, a former aide to ex-Mayor Bill de Blasio who worked on issues around homelessness. “My strong suspicion is that we are experiencing an increase in the families with children census as a result of the eviction moratorium ending and a regular spike we see in the summer months [but] we are pointing to the immigrant community that is growing in New York City and asylum-seekers as the rationale.”

New York City is under unique court-orders to provide temporary shelter to any single adult who requests a bed and any family who proves they have nowhere else to stay. Historically, the vast majority of shelter residents come from within New York City, according to records reviewed by City Limits.

It is clear, however, that a sizable number of newly arrived immigrants and asylum-seeking families have entered the DHS shelter system—including some bused from Texas in a state-sponsored political stunt by far-right Gov. Greg Abbott—contributing to a steady rise in the number of people in emergency accommodations each night. City Limits encountered eight men outside the city’s homeless intake shelter Friday who had arrived via bus that morning after completing arduous journeys, mostly by foot, from Venezuela and Colombia and into Texas.

One who has a working cell phone and has been in consistent contact with City Limits said he is now staying at the cavernous Bedford Atlantic shelter in Brooklyn with just one set of clothes and no money.

The head of the New York City branch of Catholic Charities, Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, testified that his organization has so far assisted 1,100 newly arrived immigrants, predominantly young men from Venezuela. Some said they have entered city shelters while “some are sleeping in the parks,” he said. Most of all, the men say they want to work, Sullivan said.

“Some of them say, ‘I’m coming to New York because that’s where you make it,” he added.

A bus pulling into Port Authority in Manhattan

Diane Bondareff/Mayoral Photo Office

A bus of asylum seekers arriving in New York City from Texas.

The immigration issue has ignited a cross-country feud between Adams and Abbott, who began commissioning buses loaded with immigrants to New York City Aug. 3. The first arrived early Aug. 5. Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Manuel Castro told the Council that city officials only learned of the bus after they were alerted by the organization Grannies Respond. The bus company hired by Abbott to transport immigrants to New York signed non-disclosure agreements preventing them from sharing more information, Castro added.

Abbott’s spokesperson Renae Eze said Tuesday that five buses with 250 people have departed Texas for New York. Two buses pulled up at Port Authority on Wednesday morning, where they were greeted by aid groups and city officials. Not every immigrant on the buses has ended up in city shelters, and in at least one instance, the majority of passengers left for other destinations.

Eze said Texas plans to continue busing  asylum seekers to both New York City and Washington D.C., where over 6,500 immigrants have been sent in over 160 buses.The Abbott buses coincide with efforts by nonprofits working near the Southern Border to help recently arrived immigrants travel to New York City.

During the hearing, General Welfare Committee Chair Diana Ayala acknowledged the unexpected increase in newly arrived immigrants, but attempted to separate the issue from other systemic problems. She questioned why DHS did not act to open additional shelter capacity earlier knowing that statewide eviction protections had come to an end, rents were soaring and a typical summertime surge was on the horizon. The shelter vacancy rate for families with children dipped below 1 percent in June, according to city data shared by Legal Aid.

“I think you had a little bit of a heads up and enough time to come up with a plan,” she said. 

Jenkins in his opening remarks said the agency can meet the need. “While challenges have arisen, our existing system is withstanding the many stresses placed upon it,” he said.

Councilmembers, service providers and formerly homeless New Yorkers also criticized the shelter intake process, which forces families to visit a facility in The Bronx where more than half are initially denied a long-term placement.

“The clear solution is for the city to get serious about housing for homeless New Yorkers no matter where they come from,” said Karim Walker, an organizer with the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center who has experienced homelessness.

DHS shelters are a last resort for most residents squeezed by a housing crisis and failed by other systems. With homelessness on the rise, Jenkins urged councilmembers to welcome new shelters in their districts to add capacity rather than oppose every site put forth by the city, as is often the case with the placement of such facilities.

The agency should soon get some more breathing room. An emergency declaration announced by Adams earlier this month will allow the city to bypass public review and quickly tap nonprofits to open an immigrant referral center and new shelters inside hotels, including a potential 600-unit facility outlined in a request for proposals first reported by the New York Post.

Adams has also requested reimbursement from the federal government to cover the costs of housing and serving newly arrived immigrants. But there, too, Jenkins and Castro avoided concrete answers. 

Jenkins said the administration is still trying to determine “what the ask will be.”

Additional reporting by Daniel Parra.