Project Hospitality and Interfaith Center of New York, two of the parties involved in the contract, said the road to initiating the program has been bumpy, and expect fewer than 10 of the designated 50 spaces to open their doors in the coming weeks.

Asylum seekers outside a shelter in Queens

Adi Talwar

Migrants from Ecuador outside the Evangel Christian Center in Queens, which was being used as an emergency shelter this month before residents were transferred out on Tuesday.

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A group of asylum seekers waited for lunch outside the Evangel Christian Center Church in Queens on Tuesday when a security guard came out and told them to pack their belongings: they would all be transferred out of the site in the next few days.

The Long Island City church had accepted around 180 immigrants who’d spent nights earlier this month sleeping outside the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan—the city’s main intake center for migrants—after officials said the shelter system had run out of space, amid a humanitarian crisis that’s brought more than 100,000 asylum seekers to New York over the last year.

Luis, who asked that his full name not be used out of mistrust after having seen the situation turn into a media frenzy, said he slept two days in the street in front of the hotel before being moved to the Queens church the night of August 3.

“Buses arrived late in the night,” remembered Luis, 41. “People started getting on the buses, so I got in as well, not knowing much about where they were taking us,” he said in Spanish.

For months, Mayor Eric Adams has repeated that there is no longer room for more migrants, a claim some have disputed, pointing to hundreds of beds in the city’s shelter system that were vacant between July 29 and Aug. 3 when Luis and others slept on the sidewalk, according to data compiled by the Department of Homeless Services and first published by the NY Daily News.

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To date, 58,500 asylum seekers remain in the city’s care, what officials say has cost $1.7 billion so far and has the administration scrambling to open new shelter sites. And while many religious institutions have helped out in the crisis, a larger faith-based shelter program to set up nearly 1,000 beds at 50 houses of worship across the city has yet to get off the ground.

City Limits first reported on the plan in May, and the mayor’s office formally announced it in June, with the goal of having the initiative online by July. But as of mid-August, none of the houses of worship had received any immigrants.

Project Hospitality and Interfaith Center of New York, two of the parties involved in the contract under the joint leadership of New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS), said the road to initiating the program has been bumpy, and expect fewer than 10 of the designated 50 spaces to open their doors in the coming weeks.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Deputy Mayor for Communications Fabien Levy seconded that they expect to start the program soon and clarified that Evangel Christian Center Church is not part of the initiative, but had “stepped up” to offer its space when the city struggled to place people.

“We are still working on finalizing that program,” said Levy. “So we’ve been unofficially working with different faith-based institutions, but we’re excited to launch the full program very shortly,” he added.

NYC Housing Preservation & Development (HPD), which has been coordinating part of the city’s response to the arrival of asylum seekers, is overseeing the program. The agency referred City Limits to the mayor’s press office, which did not respond to queries seeking more detail about the delay.

NYDIS has been awarded a $75 million contract, effective July 1, to coordinate the operation of the faith-based shelter program and five “hospitality centers” that would provide food, showers, access to legal services, clothing distribution, and recreation to asylum seekers during the day, when the religious institutions are being used for other purposes.

Once up and running, the  950-bed faith-based shelter program will span 24 months and may be expanded. While each of the 50 houses of worship are at different points in their opening plans, the program has progressed very slowly, said a representative for Interfaith Center of New York.

Capacity of these faith-based shelters is limited due to some state regulations that kick in once a shelter reaches 20 people or more, and the sites will operate overnight only. Locations need to have a security guard, shelter coordinator, interpreters, bathrooms and showers as well as cots, bedding, towels, and storage trunks, and must adhere to city building and fire safety code requirements.

Some of the sites are historic and were built for very different uses than what is now proposed, and so are struggling to comply with those rules. Hiring a state-licensed security guard or off duty-law enforcement officer to secure the site overnight has been another barrier for some locations, while others are looking to secure access to showers, which have been a problem in several of the “respite centers” that have opened to house migrants and continue to operate without showers on site.

Adi Talwar

A trailer with showers for asylum seekers in the parking lot of the Evangel Christian Center in Queens.

New York City already uses a small number of “faith beds,” where 21 people slept Tuesday night, according to the most recent homeless census data. For years, the city has collaborated with a coalition of religious groups called the Emergency Shelter Network to offer an alternative to larger government-run shelters, particularly in moments of crisis.

At the Evangel Christian Center Church, three migrants who’d been staying there said they were sleeping on cots set up in classrooms in the organization’s adjacent school. They were provided with towels, soap, and brushes, as well as breakfast, lunch, and dinner and access to a shower trailer in the parking lot.

A security guard working there told City Limit that local residents had complained to her repeatedly about the space being used as a shelter. As City Limits reported outside the site on Tuesday, a local resident who stopped by complained about people sitting on the sidewalks.

“All will be out in the next few days,” said the security guard on Tuesday. 

It was unclear where the asylum seekers were being transferred to. Gothamist reported that at least one bus of men who’d been staying at an Astoria church were sent to a large-scale tent shelter that the state launched this week at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, where the welcome was equally chilly: a rally against the site’s opening saw more than a dozen protesters arrested Wednesday night, the news site reported.

The local response echoes similar fights playing out over shelter placements across the city and state. Some residents have pushed to stop officials from erecting another large tent facility planned for the sports fields on Randall’s Island.

“New Yorkers, we wanted to speak directly to them and let them know, there’s nothing we enjoy about having to move soccer fields, nothing we enjoy about really moving and changing and shifting inside their local communities,” Mayor Adams said on his new weekly radio address Sunday when asked about the push back, where he repeated his calls for more aid from Washington. “This is beyond our control.”

With additional reporting by Jeanmarie Evelly.

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