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Nowhere to Go: Migrants in Flux After Right-to-Shelter Repeal

Issue 287

The City has tightened its shelter rules, leaving many migrants without a home.

Ariana Orozco & Manuel Lopez May 14

Sipping tea at the Lower East Side’s Earth Church, a recent migrant from Guinea describes his journey from his home country in West Africa to Istanbul, Turkey; to Bogota, Colombia; to San Salvador, El Salvador; to Nicaragua; to Honduras; to Guatemala, to Mexico to finally reach the U.S. border. He is escaping years of political violence in his home country. He smiles though, saying he studied literature and philosophy in Guinea, that he took advantage of the journey to learn about each part of the world he stayed in. His hope to establish a better life in the United States, however, is waning after Eric Adams announced that New York City rolled back its longstanding Right to Shelter law for single adult migrants on March 15. 

In 1981, the Callahan Decree established that the City was obligated to meet “the food and shelter needs” for needy individuals out of public concern. Under Adams’ new policy, single migrants will have a limited 30 days to secure long-term housing and will not be allowed to apply for a shelter extension except under extreme circumstances. Families are still guaranteed unlimited shelter. The decision comes following a lengthy 10-month negotiation between City officials and the Legal Aid Society. 

‘I decided to seek asylum in the U.S. because I believe the U.S. respects the rule of law and the rights of man.’

Over the past two years New York City has been a destination for an influx of migrants from all around the world, especially from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. Many of these migrants are being bussed from Texas, where as of late February Republican Gov. Greg Abbott had spent $148 million sending over 102,000 migrants to New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver and Washington, D.C., since April 2022. The sudden swell of migrants has put a strain on New York City’s homeless shelters. There are roughly 120,000 people in the City’s shelters, 65,000 of them recent migrants.  

“New York City has led the nation in responding to a national humanitarian crisis, providing shelter and care to approximately 183,000 new arrivals since the spring of 2022,” Adams said in a statement following his announcement. “But we have been clear, from day one, that the ‘Right to Shelter’ was never intended to apply to a population larger than most U.S. cities descending on the five boroughs in less than two years,” said the mayor.

Shelter conditions have also been a major concern, even before the current migrant crisis. In 2021, The City found that 73% of 200 surveyed homeless individuals had been on the streets for at least a year; 38% of them decided to leave the shelters over safety concerns. Another migrant from Guinea escaping interpersonal ­violence attested to that trend, telling The Indypendent, “My living conditions have not been easy since arriving.” This 30-day limit puts added stress on people already living in precarity. 

At the Earth Church, where many African migrants gather on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., the new policy is preoccupying everyone. Many men declined to speak about it, saying their situations were too nerve-wracking to discuss. One spoke bluntly: “I have nowhere to go.” He was considering moving to Ohio, but with no English, no family here and no U.S. education, he is unsure of what new problems he might face if he leaves New York City. 

“Thirty days are not enough, especially for someone who is fleeing from a bad situation in their home country,” the Guinean student said about having such a limited buffer to acclimate to the U.S. before facing the street. 

 The City has not created additional resources for migrants on this new expedited timeline. Further, while New York City has sued the bus companies responsible for taking the migrants up North, it is yet to be seen if Gov. Abbott will halt the exportations. If the busses keep coming, there will be even less resources to meet them.

Some say our budget shouldn’t go toward the migrants, but it will do little good to our city to shove thousands of asylum seekers who are still waiting for working permits onto the streets.  

“I decided to seek asylum in the U.S. because I believe the U.S. respects the rule of law and the rights of man,” said a man at ­Earth Church surrounded by dozens of others, all waiting to learn where their next destination might be.

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