Riverdale’s newest residents are settling into their leafy surrounds at the Van Cortlandt Motel — a safe haven, for now, they hope, while they apply for asylum and seek authorization to work legally in the United States.
The retro motel on Broadway has a reputation for tawdriness and has been on and off the market in recent years. But homeless services officials are leaning into commercial hotels to rapidly expand the city’s shelter system amid a wave of immigration that began last year. As of last week, 41,500 migrants were in their care, officials said.
“They’re opening very quickly,” said Kathryn Kliff, a staff attorney for The Legal Aid Society’s homeless rights project.
“DHS is trying to meet their legal obligation, but that has meant the normal process of setting up services is not possible,” she said referring to the city’s homeless services department. “Providers don’t have the ability or staffing.”
The nonprofit law firm and the Coalition for the Homeless, which monitor the city’s shelters, said Mayor Eric Adams was “heading down a dangerous road” when he took executive action May 10 to suspend certain Right to Shelter protections established over many decades of legal precedent.
Commercial hotel shelters must still guarantee baseline amenities like beds for residents, storage for their belongings, and laundry facilities, Kliff said.
The new makeshift shelter at the Van Cortlandt Motel offers migrants three meals a day and a bed to sleep in, if little else. The sparse services are a stark contrast with the city’s “purpose-built” shelters like the one Westhab Inc. is proposing to build less than a half mile away at 6661 Broadway.
One 22-year-old man from Colombia said he felt lucky to have a job at a produce market in Manhattan, despite the daunting commute from Riverdale. He fled violence in Colombia’s Caribbean coast region five months ago, he said, and made the journey alone to the United States by bus, motorcycle, and on foot.
He was on his way to file his I-589, he said, as he paused to speak to The Riverdale Press last Wednesday. The form is required to initiate an application for asylum in the United States.
Other migrants at the motel were eager to work, he said, in order to buy clothes, toiletries, and other supplies.
He was not aware of any of the services the city purports to provide at emergency shelters, like mental health care, assistance applying for Medicaid, or information about community-based legal providers.
Other newcomers at the motel speak Arabic, including two men from Mauritania, who told The Press they had been in the United States for two weeks.
They sleep two to a room, and staff frequently enter unannounced.
A network of volunteers and mutual aid groups across the city are stepping in to coordinate essential services migrants desperately need. Data collected by the nonprofit newsroom Documented shows migrants express the highest need for legal representation, clothing, and groceries from food pantries.
Community Board 8 land use chair Charles Moerdler reiterated concerns about the lack of services in North Riverdale, a point he and CB8 chair Laura Spalter have raised time and again about the proposed new shelter at 6661 Broadway.
“I was a refugee,” Moerdler said. “I came into this country that way. Here is an area of the city that now has no medical services, no mass transportation to speak of. It’s bad planning.”
More than 4,000 asylum seekers have arrived in New York City over the last week, Adams said on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation” Sunday, though the pace has slowed in the last few days.
Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul teamed up Monday for a joint press briefing at Industry City in Brooklyn to call for a faster path to federal work authorization for asylum seekers.
“They came here in search of work and a new future,” Hochul said. “They can become part of our economy and part of our communities, and people are ready to start training them right in facilities like we have here today.”
The mayor has scoured the city over the past year in search of space to house asylum seekers. Through emergency executive action, he has directed agencies to erect temporary shelters at such creative locations as the Red Hook cruise terminal in Brooklyn and the former policy academy on East 20th Street and the former Roosevelt Hotel, both in Manhattan. Parking lots and school gyms are also on the table, though sharp backlash from parents last week forced city officials to hold off on putting up migrants at public school gymnasiums.
“We have some significant concerns about those sites not meeting shelter requirements,” Kliff noted.
Coalition for the Homeless staff has been denied entry at shelter sites opened by the city’s emergency management office. The interagency collaboration adds new players and a variety of new shelter types into the mix, complicating the organization’s efforts to monitor shelters and coordinate site visits.
“We don’t know what it’s going to look like in the future,” Kliff said. “There are still people in other places around the country that may choose to come to NYC. It’s very difficult to know what we can expect. If that level becomes the new normal, hopefully they will not have to rely on these nontraditional sites.”
Hiram Alejandro Durán contributed to this story. Abigail Nehring is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.