Several families seeking asylum in the city-operated shelter at Van Cortlandt Motel have spoken out against poor living conditions there. These alleged conditions include bed bugs, mice, nauseous smells, moldy ceilings, an abundance of food being unnecessarily thrown out, and abusive management.
The Riverdale Press met last Saturday with several families who recently got moved to the motel to discuss the conditions alongside Aaliyah Henriquez, a former A&H security guard at the shelter who claimed to be fired partially for being “too helpful” to asylum seekers.
“They got tired of me of always persisting, persisting about them,” Henriquez said. “And I felt really bad because I got bit too there. But my condition was really bad, I was coughing, spitting. I had to get picked up by the ambulance.”
The families of migrants staying at the motel lifted their children’s sleeves to reveal bug bites and rashes on their legs and arms. According to Henriquez, behind the motel is a big bush that is a hotspot for mosquitoes that hasn’t been trimmed or fumigated in months. She said that when the motel was a men’s shelter it used to be fumigated twice a week.
The men’s shelter at Van Cortlandt Motel was recently swapped for a family shelter. About 50 people from a shelter in Queens arrived in the place of the men’s shelter less than a month ago. But the families say they were much happier at the shelter in Queens than at Van Cortlandt Motel, where they say it is not a place fit for kids.
“They told one of the clients that it’s more better,” Henriquez said. “It’s beautiful. It’s better for the kids and that’s why she signed the papers. They tricked her.”
One mother showed a picture of her room at the motel. Despite being a family of five, there are only three twin size beds. One of the five is a 4-month old who is not eating because of the conditions of the room and another child throws up because of the food, the mother said in Spanish, translated to English by Henriquez.
“They serve them the same thing everyday,” Henriquez said. “Pre-packed, not freshly cooked.”
Some of the food served are powdered eggs, French toast, pancakes, processed chicken, vegetables, and rice, according to Henriquez. But the families have described the food as dry with no flavor, hard, not edible, and causing diarrhea. To make it worse, families say they have no tables to eat at, and have to eat on the dirty floor. The condition of the food has led some families to instead buy food from outside.
However, they don’t have rice cookers, blenders, or stoves compared to their shelter in Queens where they had a full kitchen to cook. When the families came to the Van Cortlandt Motel, they had to throw out food that was already opened and even water, partially due to an issue of cockroaches at the Queens shelter.
One Kazakhstani woman, Akbota Nurlanova, said that the family’s shelter should never have been swapped with the men’s shelter.
“The previous shelter was much better,” Nurlanova said in Russian, translated by her sister. The people “who are really in need, single mothers, they came to this shelter which is like a nightmare. It’s stinky, it’s really dirty, and there are cockroaches and insects. It’s really bad conditions for kids to live in.”
Nurlanova complained that it was impossible to sleep there because they get bites from insects and cockroaches. Nurlanova moved to the U.S. from Kazakhstan in January. She stayed at a shelter in Colorado for several months before moving to the shelter in Queens, then to the Van Cortlandt Motel.
Other conditions described to The Press were humid roomsdue to inoperable air conditioning units, mold, unchanged bed sheets, dirty water, loose toilets, and room accommodations not being made for people with disabilities and a child with a heart condition.
“The hotel manager, she’s really nasty with them,” Henriquez said. “Talking about ‘be grateful you have a room’ or ‘go back to your country.’ She talks to them in English. She understands they don’t understand English.”
The conditions themselves are one thing, but another big challenge families are facing is not being able to leave their children alone to work, with many of them being single mothers.
“They cannot leave their kids,” Nurlanova’s sister said. “They cannot go and try to find better conditions to live or a good apartment because they cannot go to work.”
Henriquez said that the motel does not provide any daycare to help the families with the kids.
“That’s how they lose their jobs,” Henriquez said. “Some of them already lost their jobs. She’s struggling right now, she’s a cleaning lady, to go to Queens, and to work but she can’t because they keep telling her she can’t leave her kids here.”
The move from Queens to the motel made keeping a job difficult as well as holding on to a regular doctor, and regularly attending school. In addition their mail is still going to the Queens shelter. At the family shelter, a woman said she could get diapers, baby wipes, and everything for a baby. But at the motel there’s nothing for kids, but a parking lot. The solution? To transfer the families to a different shelter, one person said.
Henriquez said she hopes that attention being brought to the issue will be confronted. She said that after The Press previously came to the men’s shelter, staff were momentarily getting on top of things, but after that they stopped.
“They’re humans,” Henriquez said. “Not prisoners, not animals to be contained like that and treated like that. If I were in their shoes, I’d want to be helped too.”
The city homeless services department and the shelter operator Neighborhood Association for Inter-Cultural Affairs could not be reached for a comment as of press time. Both Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz and Councilman Eric Dinowitz have told The Press they reached out to get more information regarding the conditions.
Councilman Dinowitz called the claims of poor conditions “disturbing” and said his office is taking them very seriously. He said that since receiving migrants in his district, they’ve worked hard to make sure the agencies are responsible. Recently, Dinowitz said his office has collected dozens of bags of clothes and other items for asylum seekers.
“This thing is not sustainable,” Assemblyman Dinowitz said. “At some point where do you put everybody? That’s why I don’t understand why the federal government hasn’t stepped in to kind of spread the burden. Right now New York City is being hammered with this, and we want the people to be treated properly. At the same time the city needs help.”
Mayor Eric Adams recently said in a statement that the city has cared for more than 100,000 asylum seekers since last Spring. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced in a statement last Monday the Biden Administration provided the state a tentative contract turning Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn into shelters for up to 2,000 asylum seekers.