New York City is Evicting Migrant Families: “This is a Humanitarian Crisis”

As the city’s mayor implements a 60-day limit on shelter for asylum seeking families, a winter storm prompts the emergency evacuation of 2,000 migrants from a temporary shelter in South Brooklyn.

January 11, 2023

City advocates and migrant rights groups rally outside City Hall on Monday to denounce an inhumane 60-day limit on shelter for newly arrived asylum seekers. (Julianne Chandler)

On a cold Monday morning in early January, some 15 families gathered in a classroom at the P.S. 315 elementary school in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood. Dunkin Donuts coffee and pastries were laid out, self-service, while a handful of volunteer parents organized and distributed bags of clothing, shoes, and essential items.

Cobijas, cobijas,” several parents declared, rifling through the piles of donated goods in search of winter blankets. For these families, protection against the cold is in high demand: they are among 1,900 asylum seekers camped out in temporary shelters at Floyd Bennett Field, an abandoned federal airfield on the southern tip of Brooklyn. They are also parents of newly enrolled children at P.S. 315.

After collecting items like diapers, coats and gloves, and slip-on shoes (needed for getting to the outdoor bathrooms at the shelter in near-freezing temperatures), the predominantly Spanish-speaking families circled up on child-sized chairs to discuss their needs and concerns. At the forefront of their minds is a much-disputed 60-day shelter limit for migrant families, announced by New York City Mayor Eric Adams in mid-October, in a desperate measure meant to address what he calls “a complete lack of space in the city.” The first round of evictions goes into effect this week.

Like other peripheral public schools in the city, P.S. 315 has received an influx of newly arrived migrant families in recent weeks, with the school enrolling over 30 new students since November 30 (at one point in December, 13 students enrolled in a single day). An ad hoc group of volunteer parents has sprung into action to support the families, launching a donation drive, raising emergency relief funds, and reaching out to each family individually to extend a welcome and inquire about needs. For these parents, the idea that “there isn’t space” in the city is absurd, as is a policy that will potentially uproot migrant children from new school environments every 60 days.

“The 60-day limit is inhumane,” says Carrie Gleason, a P.S. 315 parent who has been spearheading relief efforts at the school. “As is the idea that we can’t find more permanent housing and make space for these families in our community.”

As it is, the families commute upwards of two hours each way to shuttle their children the more than six miles from the isolated shelter along Jamaica Bay in southeast Brooklyn to P.S. 315 in Midwood. Other families fan out to other schools, using an unreliable network of shuttles, school buses, and public transit. “This place shouldn’t exist,” says Gleason. “The problem with Floyd Bennett is that it’s totally invisible in this debate and it’s a total humanitarian crisis.”

Advocates Rally at City Hall

Gleason and the parent support group are not the only ones denouncing the 60-day shelter limit. On the morning of January 8, dozens rallied outside of City Hall in Manhattan calling on authorities to eliminate the 60-day rule and develop more effective housing measures.

“Eric Adams is ringing in the new year by endangering the lives of asylum seeker children and their families. On the heels of our first winter storm, this administration will begin throwing children out onto the streets, creating not only a costly logistical nightmare for city agencies and services but a tragic humanitarian crisis,” said Liza Schwartzwald, director of Economic Justice and Family Empowerment at the New York Immigration Coalition. “These inhumane policies go against our city’s core values—Right to Shelter has served as a beacon of safety and stability for vulnerable New Yorkers for decades.”

Several Venezuelan migrant parents living at Floyd Bennett attended the rally, sharing their experiences with city advocates and migrant rights groups. Stepping aside from the rally, which was targeted by anti-migrant counter protesters, the families spoke with City Comptroller Brad Lander about the conditions at Bennett Field.

“They act like they are dealing with animals, not people,” said Yessica (migrant names have been changed for their safety), who arrived in New York with her husband and two children in early December after a harrowing three-month journey across the Darien Gap, Central America, and Mexico. Yessica notes that the food at the shelter is insufficient, they are not adequately protected from winter weather conditions, and one staff member at the shelter violently reprimanded a small child.

In September, Lander rejected a $432 million no-bid contract that went to the private medical services provider DocGo—which oversees some services at the Floyd Bennett shelter—to provide housing and care for migrants. Lander cited a slew of issues with the contract, including the company's lack of expertise in providing social services, a history of workplace violations, and a lack of proper vetting by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The company has also been investigated by the state attorney general, Letitia James, for mistreatment of migrants in its care, and in September DocGo’s CEO resigned amid allegations that he lied about his educational background. A separate review launched by New York Governor Kathy Hochul found that security guards working for the company lacked proper authorization.

Nevertheless, the mayor’s office is poised to advance another $565 million in private contracts to DocGo and other firms to continue to provide various for-profit services to migrants.

“I will do everything I can to look into this,” Lander told the families at the rally, calling the 60-day shelter limit “one of the cruelest things New York City has done in generations.”

Emergency Evacuation

On the afternoon of January 9, a day after the rally, the city’s emergency management commissioner announced that the nearly 2,000 asylum seekers living at Bennett Field would be evacuated temporarily ahead of a severe wind and rainstorm. The scene at Bennett was chaotic, as families rushed to collect their belongings, pick up their children from far-away schools, and wait for a long line of school buses to shuttle them to James Madison High School, where they would spend the night.

As families arrived at James Madison in Brooklyn’s largely conservative Marine Park neighborhood, they were verbally harassed by an irate parent upset that the high school had announced remote learning for the next day. “Does it feel good?” the woman screamed at migrants as they unloaded from a line of school buses. “How does it feel that you kicked all the kids out of school tomorrow? Does it feel good? I hope you feel good. I hope you will sleep very well tonight!”

According to Mercedes, a Venezuelan mother of three small children, the families were promised blankets, pillows, and “even a movie for the kids.” With hundreds of people crowded into the auditorium and cafeteria, however, people were forced to sleep on the floor or in chairs. At 11 pm, P.S. 315 parents shared in a community Whatsapp group alarming videos and images of people crammed between auditorium seats, crying children, phones ringing, and families crowded on the floor surrounded by their belongings, with only towels for warmth. “It was horrible,” said Mercedes.

Families sleep on the floor at James Madison High School after an emergency evacuation from the Floyd Bennett shelter due to severe weather conditions. (Image courtesy of a P.S. 315 parent)

Zachary Iscol, the emergency management commissioner, announced in an impromptu press conference on the afternoon of the evacuation that the measures were taken “out of an abundance of caution because of the high winds.” The announcement invited criticism from advocates who have long said that Floyd Bennett—located on a floodplain— is not an appropriate site to house families. Because Floyd Bennet is a historic airway, the city was not able to drive stakes into the ground to secure the temporary tent shelter.

“The need for the city to find temporary shelter for the people already in temporary shelter demonstrates that the site was not adequately set up for extreme weather on top of the hardship this isolated and inadequately serviced location, miles from the nearest neighborhood school, already imposes on its residents,” said Comptroller Lander in a statement.

At 4:30 am, the 70-mile-per-hour winds had subsided and the families were moved back to Floyd Bennett. Many of them did not send their children to school the next day, exhausted from the ordeal and lingering uncertainty about their safety moving forward.

A City Policy of Eviction

The evacuation occurred on the same day that the city began evicting migrant families—including a woman who is eight-and-a-half months pregnant—from Row Hotel in Manhattan, as part of the new 60-day policy. About 4,800 families have received 60-day notices that will force them out of their current lodging in the coming weeks.

Of the approximately 30 new families at P.S. 315, all of them are facing eviction by mid-February. While so far the city has approved new placement for families that have reached the 60-day deadline, it is evident that temporary tent shelters, for-profit contractors, and 60-day deadlines are not going to address New York City’s migrant needs.

The morning after the storm, P.S. 315 families returned to the work of filling the widening gap in migrant support services, sourcing shoes, medications, and winter coats for families in need. A pandemic-era Community Relief Fund for Flatbush families has been revived, with hopes of providing cash support to new families to tide them over until they can secure work and more permanent housing.

“All we want is autonomy,” said Victor, a father of three at P.S. 315. “Some kind of work and a place our kids can rest at night.”

Author's note: If you would like to support Flatbush area asylum seeking families, please consider making a donation to the Relief Fund for Flatbush Families or via Venmo @fdconline and note “Floyd Bennett.”

Julianne Chandler is a journalist and editor at NACLA. She is also a P.S. 315 parent and a member of the community relief group.

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