Why migrants are sleeping on the streets of New York City

Migrants in hoodies seated on the ground.
Migrants in New York City on Monday outside the Roosevelt Hotel, which is being used as temporary housing. (John Minchillo/AP Photo)
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Video footage of migrant families sleeping on cardboard boxes on the sidewalk while waiting outside a processing center in midtown Manhattan spurred debate online this week.

New York City is providing the migrants with food, water and even air-conditioned buses in which to cool off, but it is struggling to keep up with the rising demand for shelter.

The right-wing “naked cowboy,” who sings in Times Square, showed up at the scene and sang a ditty about the virtues of a border wall.

But to understand the causes of and potential solutions to the current challenges, it helps to look in greater depth at the underlying issues.

The migrant surge

Migrants waist-deep in water, carrying children on their shoulders.
Migrants navigate around concertina wire along the banks of the Rio Grande after crossing from Mexico into Texas on Tuesday. (Eric Gay/AP Photo)

Worsening political and economic conditions in failed or authoritarian states, including Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela, have led a growing cohort of migrants to flee to the U.S. On arrival, many apply for political asylum, saying they fear state or gang violence in their home country. (A wall cannot stop asylum seekers, who have a legal right to apply for asylum when they reach the U.S.)

After being released with a court date for their claim to be heard, they are free to travel onward within the country.

An overburdened, outdated system

Immigration quotas and processing capacity have not been expanded to keep pace with increasing demand — especially from families with children, who cannot be detained for more than 20 days at the border, under a 2015 federal court order.

Due to backlogs in the court system, hearings are being scheduled for years in the future.

Why New York City

Migrants wait in line.
Recently arrived migrants outside a processing center in New York City on July 28. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

The nation’s largest city has always been a magnet for immigrants, but they are also being sent there on chartered buses by Republican politicians like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who are trying to score political points by making Democratic cities deal with the migrant surge. Migrant busloads from Texas are also reportedly going to Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

As of late July, more than 90,000 migrants had come to New York City since last spring, and more than 55,000 are still in the city’s care.

A right to shelter in a housing crisis

The immediate task for a city flooded with migrants is to house them. That’s an especially vexing challenge in New York City, because the national shortage of housing is especially severe there. As of April, the city’s average asking monthly rent stood at $3,344.

In late June, the city announced that the number of people in its homeless shelters had surpassed 100,000 for the first time, of whom more than 50,000 are migrants. Last month, the Daily News reported that the number of people sleeping on the streets went up from 3,439 last year to 4,042 in the most recent count. (The city’s total population is 8.3 million.)

Sylla, wearing a white construction mask, puts his hand on his forehead.
Sylla, from Mauritania, with other migrants to New York City, sits Monday outside the Roosevelt Hotel. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New York City has a legal “right to shelter,” meaning anyone must be given a place to sleep. But Mayor Eric Adams recently announced that the city will not guarantee indefinite shelter to new arrivals. Single men must vacate their shelter beds and reapply for housing after 60 days.

“We have no more room in the city,” Adams said.

Social justice advocates criticized the decision as potentially life-threatening for those who will be left on the streets.

The city also has begun to distribute fliers at the southern border, emphasizing the high cost of living and the fact that there is no guarantee of housing.

Scrambling to keep up

New York City Mayor Eric Adams surrounded by constituents including a woman in a hijab and a man in a white pillbox cap.
New York Mayor Eric Adams announces on June 5 at City Hall that houses of worship across the city's five boroughs will be paid to house migrants. (Matthew Chayes/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

The city has quickly created new shelters of tents set up in outdoor areas such as a cruise terminal. Adams personally spent a night on a cot there in February. A current plan to erect a temporary shelter on soccer fields has generated pushback from parents objecting to the loss of recreational space.

In addition to housing migrants in empty rooms in local hotels, the city has been sending busloads of migrants to smaller cities upstate and housing them in hotels there, prompting complaints from some upstate officials that they weren’t consulted or even informed in advance.

On Sunday, the New York Times revealed that the Adams administration had awarded a $432 million no-bid contract to a medical services firm to relocate migrants upstate, adding, “But many of the migrants have been greeted by protests at their new homes, as well as mistreatment and the false hope of jobs.”

At a City Hall rally on Monday, local elected officials pleaded with Washington to send aid to help accommodate the migrant population.

“We need help,” Adams said Monday. “And it’s not going to get any better. From this moment on, it’s downhill.”