Top Adams administration officials opened the door Tuesday to indefinitely housing Latin American migrants in a tent camp on Randalls Island, walking back a previous time-restricted policy as questions mount about other aspects of the controversial facility, including how much it’ll cost taxpayers.
In announcing the tent plan last month, Mayor Adams’ team said migrants would only stay in the “temporary” facilities for upward of 96 hours before being placed in homeless shelters or other forms of housing.
But Dr. Ted Long, a top official in the city Health Department, backpedaled on that policy after he and other administration officials brought reporters on a Tuesday afternoon tour of the Randalls facility.
“There is no limit to how long people that are seeking asylum can stay in this facility,” Long told reporters in a post-tour press conference.
Long said the goal will remain to process migrants through the so-called humanitarian relief center on Randalls within 96 hours, but that the administration wants to leave open the possibility of housing them indefinitely.
“People really have been through hell getting here,” he said. “We hear horror stories about people who have been tortured in Venezuela, and it’s imperative that we make sure people are comfortable here and ready to have a serious conversation about where they and, in many cases, their families are going to spend the next several years. It’s not a light conversation, so it can’t be done in 45 minutes.”
In a head-scratching twist, Josh Goldfein, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society, said later Tuesday that Adams officials informed him last week they expect it to take between seven to 10 days for migrants to go through the intake process at the Randalls site, and that migrants must be given seven days’ notice if instructed to leave. An Adams spokesman did not return a request for comment on Goldfein’s point.
As of Sunday, more than 20,500 South and Central American migrants had cycled through the city shelter system after arriving in New York from U.S. southern border states, where they crossed in from Mexico in hopes of applying for asylum. Some of the migrants have been sent on buses chartered by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott as part of a political stunt aimed at criticizing President Biden’s border policies.
Located in the parking lot next to Icahn Stadium, the Adams administration’s Randalls facility is supposed to alleviate burden on the city’s shelter system, which hit an all-time population high this month due to the migrant influx.
The tent camp — which has been panned as inhumane by critics who want the city to house migrants in hotels instead — is set to open Wednesday, with a max capacity of 500 people that could be quickly expanded to 898, according to administration officials. The facility will only house single adult men who will be able to come and go as they please, though they must return each night by a 10 p.m. curfew to secure a bed, officials said.
The camp was initially supposed to be erected in the parking lot at the Bronx’s Orchard Beach, but got abruptly moved to Randalls after the Bronx site flooded during a rainstorm that rolled in earlier this month as construction was nearly complete.
Zach Iscol, Adams’ emergency management commissioner whose agency has spearheaded the tent project, said on Tuesday’s tour that the city spent $325,000 on just breaking down the Orchard Beach facility, not including the cost of building it in the first place.
The city shelled out another $325,000 to set the facilities back up on Randalls, Iscol said. He said he could not estimate how much the city will spend in total on the Randalls site, where migrants can access free medical care, food and other services.
Anne Williams-Isom, Adams’ deputy mayor for health and human services, said the city is pleading for financial assistance from Biden’s administration as well as the state government, but that help hasn’t come yet. “We haven’t gotten any financial support from them,” she said.
Inside the tent facility, the construction company contracted by the city has set up a recreation room with TVs, Wi-Fi, landline phones that can make international calls, foosball and ping-pong tables. There’s also a dining hall where three meals will be served per day, a laundry room, showers and adjacent “isolation” trailers, where migrants will be quarantined if they test positive for COVID-19 upon arrival, officials said.
Also on the site is a heated dormitory where hundreds of foldable camping beds are lined up in tight rows.
The beds were not placed 3 feet apart — as they are supposed to be under the city’s right-to-shelter law, which the Adams administration apparently violated at least twice this summer by failing to provide timely space in shelters for homeless people.
Reiterating a point made by Adams, who did not tag along for Tuesday’s tour, Williams-Isom said the administration does not believe the tent facility is subject to the same restrictions and oversight as regular homeless shelters. “We consider this an emergency relief shelter, so we’re conducting it under those regulations that we’ve set up for ourselves,” she said.
But Goldfein, the Legal Aid lawyer whose group serves as a court-appointed watchdog over the shelter system, said his team is ready to ask for court intervention if right-to-shelter rules, like bed spacing, are blatantly violated.
“If you’re going to deviate from those rules, then the question is, ‘Why do you need to do that?’” he said. “Looking at the pictures today, it sure looks like the beds are closer, and it raises the question of what’s safe and appropriate. If it turns out it’s not safe for people we might have to do something and ask a judge to step in.”
Another element of the Randalls tent city that could prove perilous is inclement weather.
Though the island is considered a “special flood hazard area,” parts of the tent facility’s walls do not reach all the way down to the floor, begging the question what would happen if the city gets deluged by another big storm.
Asked what the administration is doing to prepare for rainfall at the site, Iscol would only say that the Randalls parking lot has a natural protection against flooding.
“This parking lot is on a three feet grade, from the top to the bottom. Rainwater actually runs under this and goes underneath the facility,” he said. “So we have not had any issues with rain out here.”
If weather forecasts were to show an imminent hurricane, however, Iscol said city agencies would evacuate migrants to higher ground in advance and fold up the tent facility temporarily.