The site has capacity for 1,000 people, but has seen relatively few visitors while continuing to encounter intense criticism from immigrants rights advocates and members of the City Council. Residents will be moved to a Manhattan hotel next week.

Adi Talwar

The city will shut down the emergency barracks for asylum seekers on Randall’s Island.

Mayor Eric Adams is shutting down a controversial Randall’s Island tent complex for newly arrived immigrants and moving the remaining residents to a Manhattan hotel next week, less than a month after first opening the facility, City Limits has learned.

The decision to close the sprawling structure—dubbed a “Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center” (HERRC)—was outlined in an email to lawmakers and confirmed by a senior City Hall official, the chair of the City Council’s Immigration Committee and three others familiar with the plan. 

The residents will be moved to the 600-room Watson Hotel on West 57th Street sometime between Nov. 14 and Nov. 18, according to an email from the Mayor’s Office to Councilmember Shahana Hanif, the chair of the immigration committee.

“Randalls’ [sic] Island HERRC site will be closed by the end of next week,” the mayor’s Senior Legislative Representative Emily Forgione wrote in the email, which Hanif shared with City Limits. “This site was always intended to be temporary-and the City believes that the Watson Hotel HERRC is the most effective and efficient option for single adult men.”

“It will take another couple of weeks for the structure to be completely taken down,” the email continued.

The Watson Hotel was one of 10 sites suggested by the City Council as an alternative to the tent plan, Hanif told City Limits Thursday.

“So this is good news,” she said. “I hope they put in the same force to what it looks like to house every single New Yorker that they did in creating [the HERRC].”

The tent complex was assembled on Randall’s Island and opened to newly-arriving immigrants on Oct. 19, after the Adams administration first tapped a firm to build the facility on a flood-prone parking lot in Orchard Beach. The city paid at least $650,000 to move the facility to Randall’s Island amid backlash to the original location. 

But the site, with a total capacity of 1,000 people, has seen relatively few visitors while continuing to encounter intense criticism from immigrants’ rights advocates and many members of the City Council, who worried the location was too isolated from needed services to be a practical option.

The Mayor’s Office has not responded to repeated emails and phone calls seeking comment Thursday.

Three other people familiar with the plan earlier confirmed the pending closure. Legal Aid Homeless Rights Project Attorney Josh Goldfein said officials from the city’s Law Department discussed the decision to close the site with him on Wednesday. Two advocates working with asylum-seekers said they were told to stop directing people to the HERRC because it would soon close. The people asked to remain anonymous to discuss internal conversations with city officials because they did not want to jeopardize services for their clients.

A senior City Hall official told City Limits the Adams administration would move people out of the Randall’s Island complex by Nov. 16. Administration staff were briefed on the plan Thursday, the person said.

The structure, built by a contractor that previously worked on ex-President Donald Trump’s border wall, has been overseen by the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and the city’s Health + Hospitals Corporation (HHC). 

OEM and HHC have not responded to multiple requests for information about how many people have been staying at the facility. City officials recently put the number at 170, and a person familiar with the facility told City Limits that 285 people were staying there as of Tuesday.

The facility was intended to house newly-arrived immigrants for short periods of time while staff helped them secure longer-term accommodations, offering to pay travel expenses for men moving on to other destinations or finding them space in the Department of Homeless Services’ shelter system. 

“Our goal, if you can identify with us where you want to go, is to get you there as quickly as possible,” said Dr. Ted Long, an HHC administrator, during a press tour last month. “But our focus is to get you where you want to go and not to limit the number of hours.” 

The complex is one component of the city’s comprehensive strategy for housing and providing services to newly-arrived immigrants, which includes temporary checkpoints in hotels and efforts to enroll students in local schools. But the site was criticized for its austere conditions, location on a relatively isolated island and its resemblance to New York City’s massive and outdated barracks-style shelters of old.  

“The decision to open the Randall’s Island tent camp today is a stain on our city’s rich history of welcoming immigrants and morally reprehensible,” said New York Immigration Coalition Executive Director Murad Awawdeh in a statement last month. “By confining new asylum seekers to isolated tents, vulnerable to inclement weather and removed from critical social services, the Adams administration has failed in its duties to protect and integrate the newest arrivals to our city.”

The facility’s cavernous “sleeping unit” is lined with 500 thin green cots, where men would lay head-to-toe if the site reached its full capacity. City officials have bristled at the negative portrayal of the sleeping arrangements, with Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom telling the New York Times that men have laid down in every other bed, giving them some semblance of space.  

Goldfein noted that residents also have to walk outside to use the bathroom or take a shower in mobile trailers, even as cold weather sets in and winds whip off the adjacent East River.

He praised Adams’ decision to close the tents and move men into hotel rooms Thursday.  

“I think it’s good that the city realizes people will be better off with their own space,” Goldfein said. “They’re getting them out of a place that does not comply with the right to shelter.”

Legal Aid and the Coalition for the Homeless are tasked with monitoring the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter system under a unique court order that established a right to shelter in New York City. The Randalls Island HERRC is not subject to DHS or independent oversight, however. The city has skirted the right-to-shelter rules by allowing people to choose between the HERRCs and the DHS shelter system if they are in need of a place to stay. 

“We have long said that hotels are preferable to tents for providing shelter to people, especially as the weather gets colder,” said Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Jacquelyn Simone. “But we are also frustrated that the city did not utilize hotels in the first place.”

She said she hoped the city would communicate clearly with the residents currently staying at the site in their native languages, and provide accessible transportation to the replacement hotel to ensure no one falls through the cracks. “Whenever there is mass transportation of people, there is confusion,” she said.

Adams has said more than 22,000 asylum-seekers, many of them from Venezuela, have made their way to New York City in recent months. The sharp rise in newly arrived immigrants entering the city’s DHS shelter system has coincided with record-high rents and the end of eviction protections that have driven more New Yorkers into homelessness. Meanwhile, housing discrimination and entrenched bureaucratic obstacles have locked many shelter residents out of permanent housing.

To meet the growing need for shelter space, the city has leased rooms in 58 hotels since June—reversing a DHS effort to stop using commercial hotels for families as the homeless census steadily declined before dropping significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Two of the recently-opened hotels have been used as “HERRCs” for families with children, as well as adult families and single women. 

Other agencies have also stepped in to support the newly arriving immigrants. 

On Monday, Gothamist reported that 5,851 children have enrolled in the city’s public schools after being identified through Adams’ “Project Open Arms,” an initiative for connecting the newly arrived immigrants with services and support.

Families and individuals who have spoken with City Limits since July have described arduous treks north from South America. While many have found help from church groups and nonprofit organizations that paid for their travel expenses, others have been used in political stunts by anti-immigrant Republican governors in border states, who put them on buses to sanctuary cities like New York and Washington, D.C. 

Several of the migrants who spoke with City Limits said they are happy to be in New York City and eager to find work.

“There are more opportunities here,” said an 18-year-old named Freddy, who arrived in September after a two-month journey from Venezuela. “Music, soccer, work.”

Jose Rodriguez, another Venezuelan migrant who arrived in August and entered the DHS shelter system, immediately began looking for employment.

“I need to find a job,” he said in Spanish. “My family is in Colombia and waiting for help.”

The decision to close the Randall’s Island tents seems to reflect the waning number of immigrants making their way to New York City and seeking temporary shelter. Under pressure from Adams, Gov. Kathy Hochul and Republican immigration opponents, the Biden Administration reinstated a Trump-era policy preventing many asylum-seekers from crossing the Southern Border.

Last month, Adams declared a state of emergency and said his administration projected the shelter census would surpass 100,000 if the number of asylum-seekers traveling to New York City continued at the same rate as during the summer. 

“That’s far more than the system was ever designed to handle,” Adams said.

But Goldfein, of Legal Aid, said that prediction did not end up coming true after the number of newly arrived immigrants began to slow last month. The DHS shelter population has stabilized around 65,000 people, according to daily census reports tracked by City Limits.  

“They were getting ready for an event that didn’t happen,” he said of the Randall’s Island tents.