Mayor Adams claims right-to-shelter law does not apply to NYC asylum seekers; critics pounce
Just days before his administration is expected to open its newest migrant relief center, Mayor Adams rejected Wednesday the idea that asylum seekers are protected by the city’s right-to-shelter law.
His take on the issue, his firmest stance yet on how right-to-shelter rules affect the city’s management of its migrant crisis, prompted an almost immediate backlash from both elected officials and advocates.
Adams brought up the matter Wednesday morning during an appearance on WABC’s “Sid & Friends” show after being asked if he’d ever consider scrapping the Big Apple’s status as a sanctuary city for immigrants.
“When we talk about a sanctuary city, that is codified in law,” he said. “The courts ruled that this is a sanctuary city. We have a moral and legal obligation to fulfill that.”
But on the right-to-shelter question, Adams took a different tack.
“We don’t believe asylum seekers fall into the whole right-to-shelter conversation,” the mayor said. “This is a crisis that must be addressed based on what was created on this national platform.”
His assessment of the right-to-shelter question when it comes to migrants is perhaps his clearest public statement on the matter to date — and it comes as the city continues its struggle to accommodate more than 41,000 migrants, most of them Latin Americans, who have flooded into the five boroughs since last spring.
Last week, Adams’ administration announced it will “soon” open a new so-called Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook with capacity for 1,000 people. The exact timing for when the megashelter will open is unclear, but a source briefed on the matter said it could be as early as this week.
Immigration advocates have panned the Red Hook plan, noting the site is in a flood zone while also raising questions about whether the facility would be up to snuff with the right-to-shelter law. In addition to requiring the city to provide shelter to anyone who needs it, the law stipulates that beds must be at least 6 feet apart and people must have access to lockers and laundry services, among other requirements.
When Adams spoke about right-to-shelter in September, he remarked that the city’s application of the law “must be reassessed” because “the city’s system is nearing its breaking point.”
But the Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society, which criticized Adams for violating the right-to-shelter law last year, suggested the results of the mayor’s apparent reassessment may land him in legal hot water.
“Flouting the law would accomplish nothing and such a move would only land this administration in front of a judge for contempt,” the groups said Wednesday in a statement responding to Adams’ radio appearance. “The mayor must clarify his remarks from this morning immediately.”
Earlier in the day, Joshua Goldfein, an attorney with Legal Aid’s Homeless Rights Project, offered more specifics in pushing back against Adams’ claim that right-to-shelter standards don’t apply to housing migrants.
“The mayor’s statement is plainly wrong,” Goldfein told the Daily News, adding that the consent decree that established right-to-shelter does not include exceptions for asylum seekers. “The mayor’s frustrated. We’re all frustrated with the federal government’s slow pace of addressing this issue. But I’m hopeful that he misspoke and didn’t mean to say it in the way he said it. The law is very clear.”
Goldfein added that it’s also counterproductive for the city to task the Emergency Management Department with running the migrant relief centers and suggested the Homeless Services Department should be doing it instead.
“They have an agency that provides shelter, and for whatever reason they’ve decided to set up a new system that can accommodate some, but not all people,” he said. “They’re trying to reinvent the wheel, which is consuming a lot of time, energy and money.”
City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a progressive Democrat who has been tempered in his criticism of Adams, also blasted the mayor’s comments.
“While it is clear that the current situation is unsafe, unsustainable, and in dire need of state and federal support, this is not a justification to abandon our legal and moral obligation to provide quality shelter to people — all people — most in need,” the public advocate said.
Earlier this week, Adams said at a news conference that the city is “compliant” with right-to-shelter rules, and that when it isn’t, “we’re hoping that the advocates will bring it to our attention.”
But after the latest round of criticism, Adams spokesman Fabien Levy said Legal Aid’s “suggestion that the city is flouting its legal obligations couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“If this humanitarian crisis was simply a right-to-shelter issue, then only New York City would bear the responsibility for providing for these individuals,” Levy said before renewing the mayor’s call for more help from the federal government to shelter and provide services for migrants. “New York City is doing its part; now we need everyone else to do theirs.”
During his radio spot Wednesday, the mayor was asked if he’ll ever start calling out President Biden by name while pointing fingers at the feds for the migrant crisis.
“Yelling and screaming is not going to solve the problem,” he responded. But he added that better coordination is needed at the border. “That is a responsibility that the White House must do,” he said. “I’ve made that clear over and over again.”
Adams elaborated on that idea minutes earlier during an appearance on MSNBC, saying it is still unclear to him who’s coordinating the federal response to the influx of migrants crossing over the southern border.
“I was told that we have an individual that’s coordinating the operation,” he said, without elaborating on who imparted that information. “And as I shared with White House officials, why don’t I know who that is?”
Earlier this month, Adams said he wanted a “national czar” to oversee the federal government’s response to the migrant crisis — even though Vice President Kamala Harris has been tasked with the job since March 2021.
Adams didn’t mention Harris or Biden by name in relation to the migrant crisis during either of his Wednesday morning interviews. After they concluded, Levy clarified that Adams wasn’t referring to the position Harris now holds but a different post more focused on day-to-day operations and logistics.