For a few weeks, New York mayor Eric Adams has sparred with Texas governor Greg Abbott over an immigration-related surge in New York’s shelters. The Adams administration claims that around 6,000 “asylum seekers” have arrived in the shelter system since May. Desperate to expand system capacity, Adams declared a formal emergency in early August that will enable local officials to open new shelters at a faster rate. Though some dispute the magnitude of migrants’ contribution to the surge, no one questions that the shelter census, declining when Adams was first sworn in, is again on the rise.

A rising shelter census is the normal state of affairs for homelessness in New York City. The local homelessness emergency, which began when Mayor Ed Koch authorized a “right” to shelter in 1981, is now in its fifth decade. Homeless services face a familiar dilemma: Can New York do anything for the homeless beyond sheltering them when the system is in a constant state of emergency expansion?

This year, the federal government has been apprehending “record numbers” of people trying to cross the border from Mexico without permission. Many seek asylum and get released, pending a determination of their claims’ validity. As the Center for Immigration Studies’ Andrew Arthur has explained, they could be detained while officials sorted out their asylum status, but the Biden administration does not believe that this is the correct approach.

Many then wind up in border cities. Abbott argues that Texas municipalities have borne a disproportionate burden of a fundamentally federal problem. He began sending busloads of migrants to Washington, D.C., back in April, and then to New York in early August.

At this point, charities and the federal government seem to be responsible for most of the 6,000 or so arrivals who have entered shelters. As of late last week, Abbott vouched for sending “over 900” total migrants to New York. But whatever their route, one reason many are staying is the local right-to-shelter law.

News about the availability of free shelter in New York has also made it to the border. The “consent to transport” form, signed by New York-bound migrants, references local shelter programs. Abbott has sardonically cited New York’s right-to-shelter law, as well as its sanctuary-city status, to explain why Gotham is the “ideal destination for these migrants.” According to a report published in The City, “One of the Venezuelan families in New York City . . . decided to come to the city, they said, after overhearing other migrants at the border discuss New York’s guaranteed shelter.”

Adams’s official position is that Abbott’s policies are bad, but that New York is proud to serve whoever does arrive—and that the city also deserves extraordinary federal support because it has been asked to bear an extraordinary burden. More realistically, though, no city welcomes the prospect of a large influx of extremely poor people in need of all manner of assistance. New York, like other deep-blue cities dealing with permanent homelessness crises, has for years operated homeless-exportation programs. The Special One-Time Assistance program pays one year’s rent for homeless people who move to another city. Project Reconnect pays transportation costs for homeless people with friends or family in another city willing to take them in. National media have overlooked the controversies related to these programs—and New York’s operation of them in the first place—in the current Adams vs. Abbott dust-up.

Meantime, a more local dispute is playing out between Adams and homeless advocates, who argue that the mayor has used the asylum spat to deflect attention from his failings on homelessness. They claim that the current surge has more to do with the end of the Covid-19 eviction moratorium in January and under-investment in shelter capacity. New York, however, invests far more in shelter than any other city. Adams’s fiscal year 2023 budget committed $1.9 billion to shelters and another $1 billion-plus to programs designed to keep people out of them. Months ago, Covid eviction moratoria ended nationwide, and yet only New York, with its right-to-shelter law, appears to be dealing with a shelter surge. Yes, homelessness was rising this year before the border people began showing up in May, but homelessness—and family homelessness, in particular—was also declining pre-Covid. Regardless, a growing shelter census means more fights with neighborhoods that don’t want shelters, more pressure to build affordable housing for homeless or extremely low-income individuals, and less opportunity to reform homeless services in New York City.

Shelter exit strategies in New York center around affordable housing, a chronically scarce resource. Every low-income household, regardless of their homelessness status, pursues housing assistance when struggling to secure an apartment on the open, unsubsidized market. The vacancy rate for rental units asking less than $900 a month is 0.86 percent. Illegal immigrants, though they qualify for shelter, are not eligible for federal affordable-housing programs. Some state legislators are trying to expand access to local rental-assistance programs regardless of people’s “immigration status.” Whatever may be the merits of that, migrants’ shelter exit strategy will be even more complicated to engineer than the average shelter client’s. If they keep coming, keeping shelter inflows and outflows in balance will be harder than usual.

Shortly after Adams’s inauguration, I argued that the then-declining shelter census created opportunities for reform. A homeless-services system with integrity would be one that rooted out corruption, seriously evaluated outcomes, and focused more on non-housing-related needs such as employment and behavioral health. An overwhelmed system, though, is not one ripe for innovation and enhancement. Take, for instance, buying and converting hotels for homelessness programs. Though an overhyped idea, hotel conversions held a certain promise for expanding transitional housing. But there will be less opportunity to do novel things with hotels if city government must yet again lease up available hotels to meet emergency shelter demands.

Recall that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s official justification for working with shady shelter providers was that honesty was a luxury he couldn’t afford so long as homelessness kept expanding. Under threat of lawsuits for violating the right to shelter, New York has again started working with “controversial” providers. We’re back in crisis-management mode—thanks at least partly to the “asylum seekers”—and the moment for reform may be passing.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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