Camp City: Asylum Seekers and the Homelessness Crisis on NY Randall’s Island

by Johanna Elattar

The Randall’s Island “Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center” opened on October 19, 2022, to house asylum seekers arriving in New York City. The New York Immigration Coalition quickly denounced poor conditions at the tent encampments on Randall’s Island, and the decision to house asylum seekers in them. Now, Mayor Eric Adams is facing demands to find alternative housing options to protect the new arrivals.  

The facility at Randall’s Island is approximately 84,400 square feet, and features a barracks-style space filled with 500 cots, but it can—and probably will—accommodate double the number of cots if need be. On opening day, two buses loaded with asylum seekers arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. Although the buses held mostly families, only single men will stay in the Randall’s Island facility. The arriving families were sent to the Row Hotel in Midtown Manhattan; there is still no word as to where single women will be housed. 

Adams has branded the influx of asylum seekers a crisis. Many of the seekers are from Central and South America, and they’re arriving in New York mostly by way of Texas. The camp at Randall’s Island is being used as a “way station” for the migrants to rest, and to find help getting to their next destination. The destination may be longer-term housing in the city’s homeless shelters, or transportation to yet another city. 

Although the camp on Randall’s Island is called a “Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center,” many critics say the city should be doing more to help this vulnerable population. New York’s shelter system is currently operating near its capacity, and hotels are nearly full as well. The city had already rented space in hotels to use as an emergency shelter to house migrants. But, as tourism returns to NYC, hotels are raising their prices. 

In recent months, New York has received more than 17,000 asylum seekers. Some asylum seekers have found housing with friends, and family, others have relocated to other cities. However, according to CNN, approximately 19,400 asylum seekers have ended up in the city’s overcrowded homeless shelters.  Officials who toured the barrack-style tent shelter on Randall’s Island said the city is doing its best to provide housing for the asylum seekers since the homeless shelters are operating at capacity, and it is getting harder to find hotels that are willing to rent out large blocks of rooms to house the migrants and asylum seekers. 

Emergency Management Commissioner Zach Iscol spoke about the Randell’s Island camp’s great amenities, such as laundry service. There are Xboxes, WiFi and phones that will allow the residents to call internationally, and residents will be served three culturally appropriate meals a day.  

But immigrant rights groups were alarmed by the visuals coming from the mass shelter, and voiced concerns that the asylum seekers would be at risk due to the lack of insulation from cold weather and the distance from the island to necessary social services. The images of the migrant camp look strikingly familiar to advocates in San Francisco, because they resembled the mass shelter initially proposed by Mayor London Breed as a response to COVID-19 for homeless San Franciscans.

The camp for asylum seekers coexists with another shelter on Randall’s Island: Just 350 yards away stands the HELP Meyer homeless shelter, a high-rise building that can be easily seen from the camp. The HELP Meyer is run by HELP USA, a nonprofit organization. Under a $64.7 million dollar contract, the city pays to house 200 single men in 95 dorm-style rooms.  

Mike, a 39-year-old man who now resides at a Brooklyn homeless shelter, agreed to talk to me about the conditions at the Randall’s Island HELP Meyer. Mike had recently left Randall’s Island after living at that shelter for a few months. 

“The place was f—– disgusting!”, Mike exclaimed, “It’s run down, dirty, and you wouldn’t believe the kinds of vermin that pretty much have taken over the kitchens. The bathrooms are filthy, no one ever cleans them, and every floor smells like p—- and sh—–. We had one TV in a common room with a couple of plastic chairs, and food that you can’t even identify. One night, I got so sick from eating the food that I just ate a couple of apples, or whatever fruit they had for us, but I didn’t eat the cooked food, if you can even call it that!” 

Mike continued, “The building is a high-rise, but you better take the stairs to get to your room because the elevator is nothing but a death trap! One time, these couple of guys were trapped in the elevator for days til they got them out. The beds are horrible—you’re better off just sleeping on the floor with a blanket. I got back trouble, and the bed was making it worse. The place is overcrowded, you got fights breaking out everyday, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to leave!”. 

It seems clear that the City of New York is failing to provide adequate accommodations for unhoused New Yorkers as well as for those seeking asylum, and should be investing more in caring for all those without stable and permanent housing. On October 6, when Adams was asked about the shelters for asylum seekers and for unhoused New Yorkers, he said, “I’m never going to take away the resources that are for those New Yorkers who are in need of services.” 

The next day, Adams declared a state of emergency over what he’s calling a migrant crisis, and he stated that the asylum seekers will be issued ID cards, and that there won’t be any more admissions to the tent city. HELP Meyer did not comment on the conditions of the shelter and its residents on Randall’s Island. 

As of now, Adams is not taking any questions from reporters regarding the Randall’s Island migrant camp or the homeless crisis in New York City.