‘There had to be somewhere better’: New York criticized for building migrant tents in flood-prone lot

Republican governors have sent thousands of people to the city this summer, maxing out its shelter system

In the summertime, Orchard Beach is one of the Bronx’s most popular places to party. Here on the edge of a woody peninsula about an hour’s drive from midtown Manhattan, barbecue smoke floats over a backdrop of reggaeton; crowds gather on the boardwalk for Salsa Sundays.

But now, the beach is transforming into an unprecedented shelter for a new group of people. Within weeks, as many as 1,000 recently arrived migrants will be placed under huge tents in the beach’s parking lot. And while officials say they won’t stay more than a few days, advocates worry the migrants could end up languishing in the tents as winter arrives, in an area that’s also known for dramatic floods.

Since the summer, as many as 13,000 migrants have been sent unannounced to New York City as part of a continuing political stunt by Republican governors. Residents and community groups have largely embraced the migrants, but their sudden arrival has for the first time in years maxed out New York’s shelter system, which is obligated by law to provide a bed to anyone who needs one.

beach with person lying on it in the distance
Orchard Beach is a popular family-friendly beach that serves the Bronx community. Photograph: Wilfred Chan

Mayor Eric Adams has struggled to expand the amount of available shelter, even proposing repurposing cruise ships. These tents, announced last week, are not a replacement for official shelters, his office says, but “humanitarian relief centers” to assist newly arriving migrants and connect them to social services. And as migrants continue to arrive, it’s likely the city will build even more.

The construction at Orchard Beach is proceeding rapidly. The metal structures, as big as aircraft hangars, are being built in a fenced-off corner of the beach’s vast parking lot, which has become mostly empty as the temperatures fall. On Tuesday, construction crews erected the frames that will backbone the tents, drawing curious onlookers. But broad puddles left over from a rainstorm over the weekend were still pooled under some of the structures.

Michael Benedetto, the state legislator who represents the district, said he was “very impressed” with the structures, which “seem to be rather firm, rather secure”. Benedetto said engineers had told him that there would be raised platforms built inside each of the tents, so that people would not be on the concrete itself. “So if there is some minor water collecting underneath, they’ll be protected from that. If a storm comes up or a bad weather day, they will be in tents that are secure and comfortable.”

Yvette Santiago, a 52-year-old Bronx resident who was watching the construction, wasn’t convinced. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t want them, but there had to be somewhere better than this. It’s bad conditions, it gets very cold. When there’s snow it’s hard to come with a car; the cars slide because it’s so slippery. This was a terrible, terrible idea.”


Larry Fair, a 59-year-old Bronx resident, said he supported the shelters: “I think everybody is human, and a lot of us here are fortunate to be able to be where we live.” But he, too, was wary about the weather: “That puddle shows you right there that the water’s gonna be coming in. It’s crazy how many puddles we’re having here – it’s deep ones, you know.”

Orchard Beach is part of the Pelham Islands, a low-lying coastal area in hurricane evacuation zone 1 – the highest-risk category for flooding, according to the city’s emergency management agency. The beach’s parking lot lies within a “high-risk flood zone”, according to the Federal Emergency Management Administration, and nearby residents have complained for years of flooding to roads including emergency routes, which has left them stranded during storms.

John Doyle, the district leader for City Island, which is connected to Orchard Beach, said that a “no-name storm” left the entire parking lot underwater in 2018, and the lot gets inundated with water every one or two years.

grass next to water that looks like a lake
The Orchard Beach parking lot flooded in 2018. Photograph: Courtesy of Nancy Sanchez Caro

Doyle said he supported the construction of the shelters despite the flood risk: “We’ve got to be very clear to not be sending any sort of signals of exclusion. We welcome everybody.” He hopes the arrival of the migrants might inspire city officials to add proper drainage to the area – something he and other residents have spent years pleading for without success.

For immigrant advocates, the weather is just one of too many unanswered questions. Joshua Goldfein, a staff attorney with the non-profit Legal Aid Society who has been helping the migrants, said his organization was in contact with the mayor’s office but hadn’t received clear responses to its concerns: “How do people get there? What are they told when they’re there? Who’s going to be helping them? How do you know it’s time for them to leave? Who are you going to serve there and who are you not going to serve there? We even asked them about the location – you know, it’s hurricane season, and that’s a flood-prone area. But it seems like they’re going ahead and constructing it.”

The mayor’s office appeared to be building first and figuring things out later, Goldfein said. “They’re trying to set something up in a hurry. They started with the premise that they needed another place. And they’re working backwards from that to ‘Well, what happens when people get there?’”

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office declined to comment and referred to the office’s announcement last week, which said migrants would be bussed from the city’s transit hub at the Port Authority to the relief center at Orchard Beach, “to the extent possible”. Migrants arriving at the tents would be “provided with settlement options, as well as immediate health, safety, and legal information” and would be expected to stay 24-96 hours, it said, “depending on the situation”.

construction workers on site
The tents were being built by dozens of construction workers. Photograph: Wilfred Chan

According to the mayor’s office, the relief center at Orchard Beach is the first of several centers that have not yet been announced. While the Orchard Beach site will only serve adults, Goldfein said he was worried the city might start placing children in congregate settings, “which we’ve learned time and time again is dangerous and not appropriate”. The attorney said some children had been harmed after they were placed in tent shelters during Hurricane Sandy – the last time New York City dealt with a surge of displaced people. “Families need to be together. They need their own room with a door that closes and locks at night. And if people don’t have that, there will be negative consequences.”

Murad Awawdeh, the head of the non-profit New York Immigration Coalition, which has also been assisting arriving migrants, said he worried that the Orchard Beach shelter could be the start of a harmful trend. “We fear that what’s meant to be a temporary solution will become an inadequate permanent one, which will lead to even more long-term negative impacts on individuals who are housed there.”

The real solution, Awawdeh said, would be to move people out of New York City’s shelters into permanent housing, so that there would be enough room to shelter migrants inside actual buildings. “We need a real plan. We could be doing this differently and in a more meaningful way than what we’re seeing right now.”

The question is whether something is better than nothing. “I think it’s a good thing,” said George Castellanos, a 67-year-old retiree who goes to the park nearly every day to walk his dog. “I feel they need a place to live, and we’re reaching out and giving them shelter. There’s a lot of space here in the parking lot. Especially in the wintertime, it’s not being utilized.

“It gets cold, but listen,” he added. “They have a roof over their head.”


Wilfred Chan

The GuardianTramp

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