Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Observations on the growing humanitarian crisis with asylum seekers in the East Village

Photos and reporting by Stacie Joy
The faces of the asylum seekers have been blurred

A humanitarian crisis continues to unfold with no signs of letting up on this corner of the East Village.

Since October, the former St. Brigid School has operated as a Reticketing Center overseen by the NYC Emergency Management (formerly the Office of Emergency Management or OEM) on Seventh Street and Avenue B.

The lines have grown in recent weeks, stretching from Seventh Street, around the corner to Avenue B, and back down Eighth Street. Here, the people fleeing hardship in their home countries and seeking asylum await help. A majority of the asylum seekers here are from West African countries like Mauritania, Senegal, and the Gambia and are Muslim.

We've been writing about and observing what has occurred here since late May when St. Brigid served as a respite center. The situation has only gotten worse, exacerbated by the frigid winter temperatures.

What follows is an overview of the crisis.

The Challenges
As Vox pointed out, the crisis has deep roots. "The United States' immigration system has long been broken, amplifying an international humanitarian crisis, and the movement of migrants from the southern border into cities has highlighted and tested the system's many fault lines."

In NYC, a report from the Mayor's Office blamed a host of factors for the current crisis, including the lack of comprehensive federal immigration reform, Trump administration policies and overwhelmed immigration courts.

More than 100,000 migrants have arrived in the city over the last year. 
The Asylum Seekers
There are thousands of people maneuvering for a cot assignment or shelter location, with more arriving every day. 

After the Mayor’s 30-day and 60-day eviction notices went into effect late last year, more and more people have been pouring into the St Brigid's reticketing agency. (The city put the 30- and 60-day limits in place to free up shelter space, though some critics have said the policy is only causing more chaos.)

Women, children, and families are prioritized, so you will see mostly men at this center, although some women are in the line. This site, open only during the day (that is, no one can stay overnight, doors close at 7 p.m., and the site is locked up by 9 p.m.), process those looking for one of the few spaces available.
Some people return daily until a space opens up for them at a shelter or humanitarian relief center. People can also accept a free one-way ticket almost anywhere in the world. Right now, there are White House restrictions on Venezuela, but almost anywhere else is fair game. However, very few people select this option. 

If there's space, people can be sent to large sites like the cargo warehouse (Building 197) at JFK lined with cots or wait for a shelter or hotel space to become available. Since there are so few spaces, most people go to Bathgate in the Bronx, where they can sleep on the floor overnight. If there is a Code Blue weather emergency, the former Police Academy center on 20th Street in Gramercy Park will open, and people can stay in chairs overnight. 

People are hungry and need more clothing and supplies. The city does provide meals, or at least food, but often, as we have seen, the food is moldy, expired, or not in accordance with Halal dietary restrictions.  

On Saturday, those at the site received a plastic container with a hardboiled egg, a piece of bread with butter/jelly, and an orange. 
And there is never enough food. Mutual Aid groups like East Village Loves NYC have been working hard to provide hot and healthy meals to people. Still, they have been waiting for promised funding from the NYC Emergency Management. However, none has arrived.

After being strung along for months, EV Loves NYC cannot provide the meals needed. They depend on community contributions and are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. We encourage residents to donate to groups like this that feed all people in need, as they are boots on the ground and have the volunteers, resources, and know-how to continue to provide support on a shoestring budget.

The Site 
The former St. Brigid School, which closed in the spring of 2019, is overflowing with people and operating way above capacity. Thousands of people are processed here, and the building's infrastructure and staff can't handle the influx.

Staff from NYC Emergency Management, teams from MedRite and security companies like Arrow and Mulligan, have difficulties every day with fights (cutting the line is a significant problem), sick individuals, and the endless flow of paperwork, translation services, and trying to cope with clearly desperate people who don't have any housing, food, clothing, personal care items or other necessary resources.

Getting work papers is almost impossible, so people work off the books or depend on governmental or community support. Site staff also have to deal with law enforcement and community members who are angry/upset and trying to help. 

The site cannot legally accept assistance from the community due to restrictions and risk-assessment issues like bedbugs, space, and the possibility of contaminated food.
City Services, Including the Parks Department and Sanitation
The additional work with the influx of people waiting in the park has caused stress. Workloads have trebled, and mitigating the trash and keeping the park clean has been tremendously difficult.
Law Enforcement
Police officials are fielding calls every day from angry residents about the asylum seekers. Complaints range from line-jumping fights (a daily, often hourly occurrence) to residents upset about men hanging out in or near the playgrounds along Avenue B in Tompkins Square Park. 
Some residents are also upset about the hundreds of refugees clogging the park, often sleeping in the area and urinating and defecating in public, a situation made worse after the city inexplicably removed the three porta potties — the park's only toilets — last Tuesday.

There have been incidents of violence reported inside the school and in the surrounding areas. New 9th Precinct Commanding Office Pam Jeronimo has made a concerted effort to have officers fluent in Wolof, Pulaar, and Arabic (as well as Spanish) on-site to assist in communication efforts.

The Church
St Brigid-St. Emeric on Avenue B at Eighth Street is part of the Archdiocese of New York. 

The Archdiocese leases the space at the school to the city for the reticketing site (formerly a HERRC). Rentals are usually on a six- or nine-month time frame. The church administrator, Father Seán Connolly, has no authority or oversight over the city's use of the space and has also expressed frustration with being unable to do more. He has participated in distributions and opened his doors for clothing drives. 

Ultimately, he says, he's "a steward of the space." 

Interfaith Coalition 
The neighborhood has an interfaith coalition of organizations, including representatives from Trinity Lower East Side, Middle Church, Graffiti Church, Hope Church and St. Brigid's/Most Holy Redeemer. They often participate in distributions and the sorting and storing of supplies. The community fridge outside Trinity on the corner of Ninth Street and Avenue B is a good spot for wrapped, labeled food donations for anyone needing a meal. 

Local Restaurants
Multiple local businesses, including C&B Cafe, Spice Brothers, 7th Street Burger, Café Mogador, Veselka, Cafe Chrystie, and others, have provided food, meals, snacks, and supplies for asylum seekers. Some work directly with kind-hearted and dedicated neighbors who hand out the food; others work with mutual aid groups like EV Loves NYC to provide bulk supplies (such as Halal meat). 

Local Elected Officials
State Assemblymember Harvey Epstein has attempted to distribute coats the office on the SE corner of Seventh Street and Avenue B received during recent drives but has been stymied by the number of people and the mob scene that ensues. 

Because there isn't an organized way to provide coats to the thousand-plus people waiting, these supplies have been going out in smaller, discreet distributions when someone is spotted without proper cold-weather clothing. All coat drive initiatives at this location have been paused. 

The City of New York 
There is a lack of leadership, money, and any clear path forward from the mayor and his office on down. It is clear that Federal funding is needed, and the city is at a breaking point in trying to manage the massive influx of refugees. 

During a town hall in September, Mayor Adams issued a dire warning: "Never in my life have I had a problem that I did not see an ending to. I don't see an ending to this. I don't see an ending to this. This issue will destroy New York City."

At the same time, there isn't any open communication channel with the Mayor's Office, and talks with NYC Emergency Management have remained ongoing and friendly but ultimately empty, as help has yet to arrive.

Community Members
Many residents have asked us how they can help. We see neighbors bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches daily, collect money, and buy pizzas to serve, one slice at a time. Pooling cash among friends and relatives to bulk-order items in constant need. 

We also see people mobbed by hungry asylum seekers when too many people chase too few goods. It can be scary, and there have been situations that include assault and forcible touching.

Safety concerns exist when one person is doing a distribution, and hundreds of people swarm to receive supplies. There's no easy answer here as cooperation with the site, the city, law enforcement, and the church regarding food and supplies distribution is complicated and time-consuming. 

One way people have been having some success is to leave open totes of sweaters, coats, socks, etc., clearly labeled with signs saying Free, Gratis, Gratuit and allowing the asylum seekers to browse for needed items. (It's best to not put the items in garbage bags as they give the appearance of being trash.)

There are very few women in the line, so the overwhelming need is for men's clothing. Bulk items needed right now include gloves, socks, underwear, scarves and hats. These can be ordered in large numbers, and these items are always needed. They are small, easy to distribute, and less expensive than ordering thousands of winter coats. 

There are new people at the site every day. Some people return several days in a row waiting for a new cot assignment, but the need for supplies and food is ongoing. If you are uncomfortable handing out supplies alone, you can do one side-by-side with other distributions. 

EV Loves NYC will donate your new bulk-ordered items like gloves, hats, rain ponchos, and underwear. They cannot accept coats and oversized items right now. They are also overwhelmed and have an all-volunteer staff and request patience. 

You can watch their Instagram for planned dates and times going forward. They also work with other aid groups like NYC Migrant Solidarity and have a planned distribution at the Sixth Street Community Center between Avenue B and Avenue C every Sunday. 
[Spanish for "immigration is not easy"]

This is a humanitarian crisis with a lot of moving parts. Things are subject to change without advance notice, and often, no one is informed of the new rules until they are underway. 

There is a delicate dance of diplomacy and negotiation to get help to the needy without causing further difficulties for staff, residents, and officials — or for the volunteers and asylum seekers themselves.

A lot of frustration is expressed, and people always ask why this issue isn't being addressed. Ultimately, the mayor and the city need a plan going forward, and since there is no end in sight to the flow of refugees being sent here from the southern border, every day brings challenges.

Watching the community come together to help those in need has been heartwarming. Every day, we see asylum seekers using translator apps to express gratitude.
Find the EVG archives with more posts about the asylum seekers here.


JK said...

Thanks, Stacie and evgrieve. Please, please, please keep shining a light on this. I really appreciate your balanced writing which recognizes this for the challenge it is while respecting everyone. This really is a humanitarian crisis. Your articles are helping - illuminating the issue, providing resources for people to act, and telling it in a way that will calm rushes to judgement. Thank you.

Garrett said...

God bless the East Village

MTA614 said...

"A lot of frustration is expressed, and people always ask why this issue isn't being addressed. Ultimately, the mayor and the city need a plan going forward, and since there is no end in sight to the flow of refugees being sent here from the southern border, every day brings challenges."

It's a hard thing to hear, but an endless stream of migrants coming to one of the most expensive, crowded cities in the US and in the world is not a sustainable solution for anyone. Right now, the mayoral "plan" is to enrich inner-circle cronies with expensive, subpar quality no-bid contracts that taxpayers fund. It is literally a transfer of wealth from NYC taxpayers to the contract holders, with a sliver of trickle down to the migrants. The endgame is Adam departs after one, maybe two terms, able to make bank at a number of his cronies' companies while NYC craters out into a viciously broke city that's forced to become further privatized to survive, making the rich here even richer.

There is no other plan. There will be no other plan. The only possibility is that Adams successfully gets the federal government to chip in to fund his cronyism, and even then, there will not magically be hundreds of thousands of more housing units build in NYC, nor will be overnight a ton of new labor opportunity for these migrants. Competition for lower wage jobs will spike, allowing business owners to slash wages to the bone (or hire under the table for even less) while they rake in the profits. That worker displacement for lower wage jobs will in turn add pressure on higher wage jobs (to a point) and have a knock-on effect on crime rates as people become desperate.

Meanwhile, as the city goes broke trying to pay for the world's migrant population, schools will get worse (both in funding and an influx of non-English speaking kids that will strain resources further), public programs will be quietly defunded, and what little was left of NYC's middle class will be obliterated. And all along the way, the NYC taxpayers will pay for it all and see next to no benefit.

We live in a large country, much of it underpopulated, with lagging economies that would benefit from an influx of labor. It's time to admit the coffers are not bottomless and that putting a stop to funding migrants is not part of some racist conspiracy or is some secret conservative plot, but simple kitchen table economics. This is the part that progressive activists really get wrong and which really undermines people trying to get actual progressive policies put into place--you can't just wish something you want into being, you have to have a plan. Peformative progressives who refuse to recognize the economic realities of the migrant situation are not much better than regressive conservatives who want it to be 1950 again, neither is willing to acknowledge reality and make difficult choices accordingly.

Pastor Will said...

Along with all our neighbors, Trinity's Services and Food for the Homeless at Trinity Lower East Side is also working hard to meet the increased demands placed on our daily soup kitchen, serving 400 to 600 hot lunches every weekday, two or three times the number of meals we ever served in our 40 years of serving the community. The pressure on our small staff is immense, so volunteering with us is also a great way to serve these newest neighbors of ours. Learn more at www.safhnyc.org/serve

Thank you, EV Grieve, for shining this much-needed light on this horrible crisis.

Liam R said...

Really a sign of the times that we have better reporting on this from a microblog than larger, funded publications!

translation workshop said...

Thank you very much Stacie Joy and EV Grieve for following this situation in such depth and with so much information for how to help. I went by myself and chose a section of line somewhat away from the park to give out fruit. I found the men in general kind and patient given their hunger and circumstances--they appreciated a brief moment of conversation and acknowledgement. When I went again to help distribute meals, line jumping happened, but we kept a sense of humor about it and most of the line jumpers then sheepishly moved to the back. (Many of them asked for gloves.) And yes, I felt very small given the enormity of need and the lack of government organization or help. Thank you neighbors for stepping up and showing kindness to people new to our city and country.

Bobby G said...

Thank you Stacie Joy and EV Grieve for this comprehensive reporting on a situation many see everyday, but didn't know all that is going on. 🙏

KPR789 said...

EV Grieve and Stacie,

My Lord, your feature is eye-opening, compelling and heart-stopping. And ominous. And infuriating.

It moved me to immediately donate to EV Loves NY (thanks for including the link). Thank you for all of the reporting you've done about this worsening-by-the-day humanitarian crisis and the plight of the asylum seekers at St Bridget's. I'm printing your article and posting it on my building's community bulletin board hoping other residents will read it and be moved to help however they can.

Jeanne Krier

Dan said...

There are things that the community can do. But these need to be done religiously and often.

Write. Call. Email. Fax.

It is my suggestion after talking to other activists, that we must band together and contact our Federal Members of Congress to demand immediate Emergency Funding and Humanitarian Disaster Help.

Find your Reps and contact info here https://lnk.bio/ny_indivisible

Faxing / Texting
Use FaxZero (believe it or not this is very effective and very easy) or
ResistBot (text "resist" to 50409 and follow the directions)

Suggested order of contact
Find your Reps' contact info at
- US Senators
- US Member of Congress
- Governor
- State Senators
- State Assembly
- NY City Council

Sample message / fax:
We are facing a migrant humanitarian crisis in NYC and demand immediate Emergency Funding and Humanitarian Disaster Help for the migrant situation in NYC. It is obvious that NYC cannot handle this situation on its own. We need help immediately!

Contacting Electeds is extremely important and it's not hard but some folks feel intimidated by it. First off, they will never have to speak to the actual elected official, normally it's simply leaving a message after first stating your name and zipcode (sometimes its street address as well in order to verify that you are from the area concerned).

But emails, texting via ResistBot and, yes even faxing is important. Faxing works great because the electeds don't get many of these and therefore it has an importance attached to it. FaxZero is a free online webtool that already has your Members of Congress as auto-dials, the sender merely has to put their note in the body of the fax field and send.

Sarah said...

Remember, this isn't anybody's "plan." This is a handful of southern governors who think it's fucking funny to use thousands of vulnerable people to try to make a political point.

sophocles said...

MTA614 I think your analysis makes sense and we need to take our blinders off.

Katherine said...

Thank you, Dan, for the info about contacting our government reps. I just used FaxZero to send letters to Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, and one to Kathy Hochul, too. Quick and easy!

Garrett said...

Replying to Sarah 7:57:
According to the latest figures from NYC City Council only 14% of asylum seekers arriving in NYC have been sent here by the southern governors. The rest have been transported by the feds, Catholic Charities and a variety of NGOs

Anonymous said...

One thing not covered is the increased bike traffic in the EV-the bikes are flooding every corner now and I have noticed an uptick of the delivery people are migrants. While this was happening before it wasn’t at the level it is now, there are just too many out there riding bikes and scooters, going the wrong way in a bike lane or on the street and on sidewalks, with no concern for pedestrians or cars, not stopping at lights and all manner of rule breaking. I have almost been hit now several times as a pedestrian from this reckless behavior and I have seen them (the bikers) almost be hit by cars (and once a bus!) or almost hit other pedestrians, including a senior citizen who had mobility issues on a sidewalk! I am afraid it’s only a matter of time before a tragedy happens. And then what? I understand people are just trying to survive but the ignorance of the rules of the road is going to end up with someone hurt or worse. People who are delivering food illegally under the table likely don’t have insurance (or even know they need it) and aren’t legally supported by any of these delivery companies. If I am hit, who is paying for my injuries? What about the senior citizen? A lot of residents in our neighborhood are vulnerable and one large hospital bill could put them out on the street. This is a serious problem and we should include in these discussions.

Anonymous said...


A related issue....
For obvious reasons, migrants new to NYC are flocking to food delivery to earn money.
There is now a glut of people doing food delivery work.
Check out numerous blocks in midtown where people are standing around waiting for work.

And yes, many are using somebody else’s “ID”, ebike etc.
There is now an entire illegal infrastructure for this.

Mike said...

What a mess!

Though this is a complex and multiple dimensional problem as the article correctly points out, it is not an unsolvable problem as Eric Adams says. It is just a problem that he is incapable of solving; I am not sure if this is due to a deficiency in intellect, competence, will, time, or a combination of all of those factors.

In a time of crisis, democratically elected leaders are the ones that we have appointed to manage and solve the situation. Eric Adams should be staying at the town hall until 2am in a specifically dedicated “situation room” with a narrow group of key decision makers to unlock any bureaucratic hurdles that would slow the resolution of this crisis.

100k people to shelter in a city of 9 million is not an impossible task. It just requires vision, creativity, and resources. We have the resources, we don’t have the rest.

Eric Adams can be proud of his well deserved approval rating, which I read is the worst for any New York mayor ever.

PJ Lobo said...

What a strange conclusion to come to after such a thoughtful and incisive comment. To say that there is no plan, and that the coffers are bare is simply not true. True there is certainly no effective comprehensive plan, but this is by design and the Greg Abbots of this world have no intention or interest in creating one. This issue needs to be dealt with collectively not by any one state or local government or authority but there is no will amongst the governing bodies in this country to enact comprehensive immigration reform. I don’t know if the commenter is a progressive, but they seem to have bought the right wing’s oft repeated lie that we simply have no money to pay for any plan that actually helps people (think health care or education). Given that Republican tax cuts in this century alone - that benefit mostly corporations and the wealthy - have added $10 trillion to our national debt, that we have a military budget fast approaching one trillion dollars, that there is nearly $135 trillion of private wealth in the United States and that 45 trillion alone is held by one percent of the population the coffers are only bare by design (see capital gains taxes and the abhorrence of a wealth tax). There most certainly is a way to deal with this problem but there simply is no will. Republicans are only invested in creating chaos, fear, and hatred (and cutting taxes and regulations for the usual suspects)— not governing and Democrats on the whole, are simply too timid and/or see no profit in tackling such a seemingly difficult issue. I’m a progressive, but I wish it was the 1950s too, only in the sense that the highest marginal tax rate in this country was between 70 and 90% and we survived! If there is a mind virus in this country it’s the pernicious one that nothing can be done, and even if it could there isn’t enough money for all the “free” stuff these unrealistic lefties want. Meanwhile there’s plenty of free planes, free bombs and free tanks and a healthy dollop of profit taking by the defense industry and their assorted lampreys, all this while the wealthy enjoy historically low tax rates. Deep sigh and pause for breath. No human is illegal.