migrant crisis

‘Drastic' Crisis May Force NYC to Use 20 School Gyms to House Migrants, Sparking Anger

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New York City has begun to convert public school gymnasiums into housing for international migrants, its latest effort to accommodate a growing population of asylum-seekers who have overwhelmed the city’s homeless shelter system.

The move to use the gyms as shelters with six weeks still to go in the school year touched off an immediate backlash, with parents organizing protests at several schools and threatening to keep their kids home once migrants arrive.

Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, acknowledged Tuesday that the use of the schools was “drastic” but insisted the city is out of options. Around 4,200 migrants sought space in city shelters last week alone, he said.

Twenty school gyms are currently being considered for temporary housing. Those facilities are built for children — with kid-sized restrooms and sinks, and without showers — but are being prepped for adult migrants.

At least one of them, in Coney Island, was housing migrants on Tuesday. Several others have been supplied in recent days with green cots and emergency rations. The mayor said the school gyms were intended to be used only for short periods, with the goal being to move people out quickly.

“This is one of the last places we want to look at,” Adams said. "None of us are comfortable with having to take these drastic steps. But I could not have been more clear for the last few months of what we are facing. Over 65,000 migrant asylum seekers have reached our city."

Following the expiration of a pandemic-era immigration policy last week, the number of migrants entering the U.S. has slowed significantly. But several cities say they have seen a swell of new arrivals -- many of whom crossed the southern border prior to the change in policy.

In New York City, where a court-ordered mandate guarantees all people a right to shelter, local officials have explored various unconventional ideas for housing its newest residents. Over the weekend, the city announced it had struck a deal to convert a shuttered historic hotel into a shelter with as many as 1,000 rooms.

They have placed migrants in an NYPD academy and petitioned the federal government to reopen a former military airfield.

Erica Byfield reporting on the backlash to Mayor Adams' plan to use school gyms to house asylum seekers.

The city has also placed migrants on buses bound for northern suburbs, prompting anger and lawsuits from upstate officials. On Tuesday, Orange County was granted a temporary injunction blocking NYC from sending any more asylum seekers there, at least for the time being.

"New York City should not be establishing a homeless shelter outside of its borders in Orange County,” Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus said. “The city is a self-proclaimed sanctuary city; Orange County is not. We should not have to bear the burden of the immigration crisis that the Federal government and Mayor Adams created."

The decision from the judge came as a senior staffer with the Adams administration had called Neuhaus and told him seven more buses were heading up there. The county executive told the staffer to talk with the city's attorney, as the judge had already put the temporary skids on the busing plan.

The attorney representing the city in the case did not issue a comment outside court, nor did an attorney for the Crossroads Hotel and the Ramada Inn in Newburgh, which haven been housing migrants bused from NYC.

Ultimately, Orange County wants the judge to order NYC to take the migrants back. For now, if any of the 186 men do leave — and they are free to go anywhere — the city can’t replace them with others.

Adams made several media appearances Tuesday defending how he’s dealt with officials in the northern suburbs. Rockland County officials have complained they were blindsided as well, and they went to court to stop a hotel in Orangeburg from accepting hundreds of migrants.

Buses filled with migrants are now restricted to Orange County after a judge's decision. Sarah Wallace reports.

But back in the city, where two new busloads of migrants arrived Tuesday night, the decision to use school gyms has struck a nerve.

Parents protested Tuesday morning outside a public school in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section, where a squat brick gym was being prepared for the arrival of migrants. Some parents said that the gym setup is inhumane and questioned whether it was safe for the migrants — as well as their own kids.

In the afternoon, after classes dismissed for the day, the playground was unusually quiet. Parents said their kids were told they couldn’t play outside and that all after school programs were being held indoors.

“There’s usually hundreds of kids running around right now, playing sports, getting their energy out,” said Maureen Steinel, a mother of 8th grade twins, gesturing to an empty stretch of asphalt now lined with orange cones and a stack of police barricades.

A self-identified progressive, Steinel said she wanted to help migrants, but couldn’t understand the decision to take away space from school kids. She ticked off a list of preferable options: city-owned community centers and college campuses, an armory, empty luxury condos.

"Everybody here is an immigrant, we should help. This is not the right place. There are showers there right now," said Elizabeth Canelo, a Sunset Park resident.

There is a new controversy over how New York City is handling the latest influx of migrants from the southern border as the United States deals with a humanitarian crisis. NBC New York's Andrew Siff and Gaby Acevedo report.

City Councilwoman Jennifer Gutierrez toured P.S. 17 with Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, and later told NBC New York they saw more than 70 cots inside, each with a toiletry bag. They said the situation was not ideal, but will work for the immediate future.

City officials said there were advantages to school buildings, which are municipally owned, and come with built-in staff and security. Many of the gymnasiums were previously used for vaccine distribution during the pandemic.

Adams also said all the gyms under consideration were stand-alone facilities, not directly connected to school buildings. It wasn’t immediately clear whether they would be used by single men or families, or how long the migrants would be allowed to stay.

Other elected officials said upset parents are misinformed.

"These parents are basing most their opinions on folks that are not looking to understand the problem," said Reynoso.

Parents said they've been told won't be able to use the gym, go to recess, and the prom and upcoming carnival may be canceled. It wasn't clear how long the migrants would be sheltered in the school gym.

On Tuesday night, parents listened in to a virtual meeting by P.S. 17 Principal Robert Marchi, who sent a letter on Monday blasting the city's decision, saying "I am extremely angry over this administrative arrogance and total disregard and disrespect shown to the P.S. 17 community.”

Some parents who recently learned of the shelter plan accused the principal of dodging their questions. But many school and local leaders have said they really don't have much information, saying they've been blindsided by Adams.

Although fewer migrants are crossing the border, thousands are still making their way in. Gaby Acevedo reports from El Paso, Texas.

Josh Goldfein, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, which helps monitor the city’s treatment of homeless individuals, said there were problems with the city’s decision to go outside their standard shelter options, such as hotel rooms. He pointed to a lack of shower access and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities at some school gymnasiums.

“If they move people into spaces that have not been typically used before like office buildings, tents, gyms, we have a much greater level of concern,” Goldfein said.

Adams has repeatedly said New York, a city long known for its openness to immigrants, has reached its limit on new arrivals. He has called on the federal government for help, both in providing funding to the city and in slowing entrances at the border.

NBC New York's Sarah Wallace, Erica Byfield and Checkey Beckford contributed to this report.

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