Asylum seekers find some respite here

Agency cites privacy law, deflects questions about new emergency shelter at motel


Half a dozen guards from A&H Security have been standing sentry at the Van Cortlandt Motel as workers buzz around them, piling mattresses in the driveway in recent weeks and stretching yellow caution tape across the entrance. A sign taped to the window last Wednesday read, “Sorry no rooms available,” and another sheet of paper next to it said, “DHS Office,” directing guests to the side door around the corner.

It’s a poorly kept secret that a homeless services provider has moved back into an old haunt on Broadway. The agency pulled out of the location in 2017 as part of the previous mayoral administration’s effort to phase out commercial hotel and cluster sites in the city’s shelter system.

But some of those same sites are now back in the running as Mayor Eric Adams undertakes a rapid expansion of the city’s shelter system to accommodate 65,000 migrants his administration says have arrived in New York seeking asylum.

The city is on pace to spend more than $4 billion over fiscal years 2023 and 2024 to scale up shelter and services, according to a brief on the city’s preliminary budget proposal published in March by Comptroller Brad Lander

Prospective buyers shrink away after learning of the terms of the Van Cortlandt Motel’s lease, leaving the two-story structure looking much the same as it did when it opened in the 1950s.

Now, the site is set to become one of 130 emergency shelters the city has opened to accommodate about 40,000 asylum seekers they say are currently in their care. Most are housed in commercial hotels. There are also seven public school gyms being converted, the agency revealed this week. 

In North Riverdale, they’re apparently hoping the neighbors won’t notice.

In response to inquiries from The Riverdale Press, homeless services spokesperson Nicholas Jacobelli said he was barred from sharing any information about “locations where social services recipients reside,” citing state social services law and the city’s privacy law.

He said the city was facing an “unprecedented” crisis and added the agency’s “teams continue to work around the clock to procure emergency shelter capacity.”

Councilman Eric Dinowitz was able to confirm that the motel is being used as a temporary shelter for about 100 single adult asylum seekers, though he said he has few other details about the contract.

Dinowitz called the lack of transparency “concerning.”

Homeless services officials “have a reputation for being opaque with their data, something Community Board 8 is all too familiar with,” he said.

“Transparency is crucial in ensuring that the needs of asylum seekers and community members are being met,” he added.

The department is breaking with procurement rules that normally apply to new shelters, and their secrecy puts CB8 chair Laura Spalter in a difficult position.

For two years the community board has hounded agency heads for information about the shelter Westhab is proposing to build at 6661 Broadway — less than a half mile away from the Van Cortlandt Motel. The city comptroller Brad Lander is still waiting to receive the $390 million proposed contract for the site.

The city informed the board that the community district is now “being accessed” to house asylum seekers in a co-ed temporary shelter operated by the Neighborhood Association for Inter-cultural Affairs, Spalter told members of the executive committee earlier this month. She was careful not to name the Van Cortlandt Motel.

The nonprofit provider has operated in the Bronx since 1974, and is also a state-designated neighborhood preservation company.

Tara McMaster, who grew up in North Riverdale and lives a few blocks away from the Van Cortlandt Motel, said she noticed a new flurry of activity at the property around the end of April.

“Everybody here talks when you walk your dog. If they think it’s a secret, it’s not. Just own it,” she said.

She and her neighbors have a harmonious relationship with other group homes in the area, she said.

“A lot of people noticed the restaurant was closed and it said ‘DHS office.’ There’s a lot of old-timers around here. People grew up here. They know what’s going.”

The city’s homeless services agency is coordinating services for asylum seekers in the shelter system with the department of health and mental hygiene, NYC Health+Hospitals, the mayor’s office of immigrant affairs, and the education department.

Other city agencies visit shelter sites to offer medical and mental health assistance and help migrants apply for Medicaid, a homeless services spokesperson said. Immigrant affairs staff can also connect clients to legal assistance with community-based providers.

The number of migrants crossing the southing border has declined since the pandemic-era federal public health rule known as Title 42 ended last week, according to figures released by U.S. homeland security.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day declared a state of emergency last week after New York City homeless services officials announced they were placing 300 asylum seekers at hotels upstate. The order could prevent the city from moving ahead on its contract with the Armani Inn in Orangeburg.

Abigail Nehring is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

immigrants, Mayor Eric Adams, asylum seekers, Eric Dinowitz, A&H Security, Van Cortland Motel, Nicholas Jacobelli, Laura Spalter,