Tensions between the city council and Mayor Eric Adams spiked this past week over elements of the asylum seeker crisis, with both sides digging in their heels. Meanwhile, the care for some 70,000 newly arrived migrants hangs in the balance.

According to the latest city stats, single adults and families with children stay in city shelters for over a year on average, while adult families remain for over two years. This has only increased with the number of people seeking asylum coming to the city, leading to the city desperately opening emergency sites as shelters are overrun.

On May 23, Adams filed an application on behalf of the city seeking “modification” and “relief” from the right-to-shelter law enacted 44 years ago under the 1984 consent decree in Callahan v. Carey.

In a statement about the application, Adams said they don’t want to end the law. The move was only to “clarify” the law since the city cannot “provide care for an unlimited number of people and are already overextended.”

“We now have more asylum seekers in our care than New Yorkers experiencing homelessness when we came into office. When the original Callahan consent decree came down almost 40 years ago, no one could have contemplated, foresaw, or even remotely imagined a mass influx of individuals entering our system,” said Adams.

The Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless were upset about Adams’ request to suspend the city’s long-established status as a sanctuary for unhoused. In a joint statement,  Speaker Adrienne Adams and Deputy Speaker Diana Ayala called the application to modify the right to shelter law “beyond disturbing.” They advocated for long term housing solutions and moving people out of shelters through the city’s housing voucher program (CityFHEPS).

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“Instead of solely focusing efforts on emergency shelter space and taking away essential safety protections,” they said, “this Administration should pursue readily available solutions that can reduce homelessness, including adequate investments in eviction prevention, housing vouchers, agency staffing, and affordable housing development that are currently missing from its proposed budget.”

In seeming defiance the next day, Ayala and Councilmembers Pierina Sanchez and Tiffany Caban held a conference on a package of legislation to remove barriers to CityFHEPS. The package of bills includes expanding CityFHEPS eligibility, changing the qualifying federal poverty level, and removing work and source of income requirements.  

By May 25, the city council passed the bills.

“We are at a critical juncture in our city’s housing and homelessness crisis, with record levels of individuals and families affected,” said Sanchez, a bill sponsor. “In my district, we know the heartbreaking consequences firsthand. One in ten households of Bronx community district 5 faced eviction last year. This means children are forced to commute over 90 minutes from shelters in Queens to the Bronx, severing vital social bonds and support networks that are crucial for their development. The resulting stress at the household and community level permeates our community, manifesting as food insecurity, poor health outcomes, and even violence.”

Comptroller Brad Lander also backed the plan to move homeless individuals and asylum seekers into long-term housing and get work authorization for these new residents.

“Rather than seeking to circumvent the state constitutional requirement to provide safe and dignified shelter, the Mayor should have gone to court to clarify that it applies to all municipalities in New York State,” said Lander.

The city and news outlets argued that the CityFHEPS bills would have unintended consequences that would hurt people already in shelters. New York City Department of Social Services Commissioner Molly Park said the city council is “well intentioned” but undermining “a system designed to direct resources to those with the greatest need.” Park said the bills would ultimately cost the city $17 billion over the next five years.

Fabien Levy, Adams’ press secretary, said, “Since day one of this administration, we have worked to shelter New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and connect our city’s residents with more permanent housing. That’s why earlier this year, we proposed to the City Council that we work together to remove the 90-day rule for families experiencing homelessness to connect them with housing vouchers faster. They rejected that proposal, and today passed a package of bills that will make it harder for New Yorkers experiencing homelessness to exit shelter to permanent housing.”

Meanwhile, a hoard of council members also took to Albany to demand more state and federal support for thousands of asylum seekers arriving in the city daily. 

“As we champion in addressing the urgency of this national humanitarian emergency, our state and federal leaders must set the foundation that conduces comprehensive solutions—investments with necessary funding for shelter and healthcare, as well as developments for workforce infrastructure,” said Councilmember Kevin C. Riley. “We urge our colleagues in all levels of government to rightfully do their part in this action.”

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.

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