Lawyers for the homeless say the Adams administration cleared out the city's homeless intake office Thursday night in what they say is an improvement, after controversy erupted this week over deteriorating conditions. The News 4 I-Team first reported that families with children were piling up in the office and sleeping on the floor, a practice which is illegal in New York.
While Mayor Eric Adams has largely denied the allegations, the Legal Aid Society claims his administration — during a closed door meeting Thursday morning — acknowledged staff shortages, long lines and a lack of Spanish-speaking personnel at the front door of their homeless shelter system, just three hours before Adams convened a press conference to push back at the group’s criticisms.
“We did a great job and we will continue to do better every day,” Adams told reporters, denying claims by Legal Aid that his administration tried to conceal violations at the city’s homeless intake center in the South Bronx.
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But during that private meeting Thursday, the administration promised to investigate whether long lines and language barriers have been forcing families to miss the daily deadline to secure a shelter bed, according to a Legal Aid memo sent to senior homeless officials and shared with the News 4 I-Team.
The intake center, known as “PATH,” is intended only as an entry point to the shelter system where applications are processed — not as a place to house families overnight.
Overnights at PATH are prohibited by local law and a 2008 Court Settlement between the City and the Legal Aid Society, representing people in shelter. Legal Aid lawyers are supposed to be kept apprised of conditions in the system, but were unaware of any sleepovers at PATH until the News 4 I-team's reporting on July 20.
On July 19, Mayor Adams issued a news release sounding an alarm about a sudden surge of 2,800 migrants crowding the shelter system. The mayor's release called for federal help, but made no mention of any forbidden sleepovers in his intake office.
Legal Aid pounced, characterizing Adams’s migrant announcement as a cynical attempt at preemptive public relations. Mayor Adams insists he was unaware of any legal violations brewing in the system until July 21.
“There’s no reason to cover up,” Adams said. “This is an administration of transparency."
After years of relative calm, the formerly controversial homeless entrypoint is back in the spotlight amid a recent influx of migrants from Central and South America. In interviews conducted by the News 4 I-Team, migrant families said they had been living in the intake center lobby and sleeping on the floor there for days at a time, along with scores of other families.
Some said their children were hungry and that they needed more food and water than the shelter system was offering.
“There was a lot of people on the floor. No lie. There was at least 80 people on the floor,” said Leonardo Mayora, who crossed the border into Texas earlier in July, after a six-month long journey from Venezuela with his wife and 3-year-old son.
Mayora says his family witnessed sexual attacks on migrant children and encountered the corpses of other asylum seekers who did not survive the journey.
After a Texas church paid his bus fare to Washington, D.C., Mayora says another church offered them a second bus ticket to NYC. He was given an address on East 151st Street. When he first arrived at PATH, he said he thought it was a hotel, but quickly learned otherwise.
“The people said that there was no space,” said Mayora, who says his family slept on the floor from July 15-20.
When NBC New York asked Mayor Adams why these families would say they were sleeping in the building if they weren’t, he seemed to backpedal.
“You’re an excellent reporter so if you see cases like that, please let us know because that isn't who we are and that is not what this administration is about,” he said.
Because New York has a "right to shelter,” families are entitled to a placement the same day they enter the system, as long as they arrive at PATH by 10pm. Adams insists the City has only failed to shelter four families who met that deadline.
“Human beings drop the ball sometimes,” the mayor said, arguing that failing to house four families was a relatively small error considering his claim that the system has been swamped with as many as 3,000 Central and South American asylum-seekers in the past six weeks.
In the Legal Aid memo, lawyers for the homeless asked for data to back up Adams' claim Tuesday that 2,800 migrants entered the system in the past six weeks. City officials have not responded to requests to explain why the alleged migrant spike is not clearly reflected in city data.
When pressed about whether officials counted the number of actual migrant applications for shelter, Social Services Commissioner Gary Jenkins said “It’s definitely an estimate."
Legal Aid accused the mayor of blaming the crowding in shelters on migrants to deflect from preexisting management issues. In its memo, Legal aid also claims that the city acknowledged behind closed doors that "staffing issues are impeding their ability to move shelter residents into permanent housing, which is contributing to the exceptionally low vacancy rate in shelters.”
Fabien Levy, a spokesman for Mayor Adams, said in a statement “We will review the letter and respond to Legal Aid in a timely manner. As Mayor Adams said yesterday, he is hoping that those who claim to advocate for the unhoused will speak and work directly with us, instead of communicating via press releases and leaked letters. Sadly we continue to see this same practice from Legal Aid.
Jennifer Vázquez contributed to this report.