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Home / ‘Constantly displaced’: migrants to New York City seek housing in freezing cold

‘Constantly displaced’: migrants to New York City seek housing in freezing cold

Posted on Feb 04, 2023

A lejandro Landaeta, 30, was walking to a local store to grab lunch and had just stepped out from the Brooklyn warehouse where he had been staying for five days now when he felt the extreme cold of a New York winter.

As the temperature plunged below freezing and the wind slapped against the gates and rattled doors near him, he walked down in a sweater and pants, struggling to move his fingers in the frigid air. The weather service was warning of “once-in-a-generation cold”.

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Landaeta is among hundreds of male migrants uprooted from a Manhattan hotel, one of many that Mayor Eric Adams’ office had converted into a shelter following the influx of asylum seekers who arrived in the city last August. The hotel will now house female migrants and children.

After living at the Watson Hotel for months, people like Landaeta were ordered to leave last week. Many of the migrants were initially given a notice to vacate by Tuesday, but had been forced out on Sunday, something they said made them feel like they were “criminals” and also just as the city plunged into one of its brutal winter cold snaps.

Some were not aware they were being removed until they returned from work and told that they had to vacate right then – as late as 11pm.

The mayor’s office said the men were given notice but didn’t clarify if they were removed before the date given in the notice.

Landaeta echoed the concerns of some of the migrants who initially came here and returned to Manhattan to protest their new living conditions.

“We work very far, and it’s really cold,” he said, adding that their commute is an hour away in Brooklyn. “There is no privacy, it’s hard to live like this.”

The beds are “jail-like” and one has to cross the street to take a shower; it is inhumanely cold, and there is no space for personal belongings in the warehouse-like space filled with hundreds of beds uniformly spread apart: these are the concerns migrants shared.

The warehouse is situated in a wide open area at the Brooklyn cruise terminal, an approximately 15-acre spread surrounded by warehouses and sparsely scattered stores.

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This kind of isolation and distance from commercial areas make it difficult for migrants to establish a life here, said Sergio Tupac Uzurin, a member of the support group Mutual Aid Collective/Ayuda Mutua that has been working with the migrants since last August.

“The jobs they are getting are going to be in restaurants so they need to be centrally located,” said Uzurin.

“The shelter system and the hotel system is completely inadequate, there are no translators almost anywhere,” he added. “They’re not provided with any support to get what they need whether it’s privacy, whether it’s a way to go to work and come back and have their stuff still be there.”

Migrants sit among their belongings outside of the Watson Hotel on West 57th Street in Manhattan. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

While many asylum seekers were horrified at the facility and either moved to other shelters, to others’ houses who were hosting them or to different cities, some decided to stay put. And not all were angry at their treatment.

Carlos Daniel Ihrda, 38, who currently works on telephone antennas, said he was satisfied with the facility as he was leaving the warehouse on Friday morning.

“I came to the US to work and that’s what I’m doing,” he said, “I’m satisfied with the help they gave me, I do not demand anything more.”

Since arriving in New York, many of the migrants have taken up numerous jobs as they await their paperwork to enroll in the job market legally. They often work in the construction, restaurant or transportation industries.

While they await their paperwork, they are employed in under-the-table jobs that are “rife with abuse”, said Uzurin. All the while, they are “shuffled” from one accommodation to another, which makes it nearly impossible for them to maintain or establish their footing in the job market.

“The plan is to make these men constantly displaced, which [makes it] impossible to hold a job when you’re constantly displaced. There is no place to print a résumé. Where are they going to store a résumé if they’re in congregate settings all the time being moved around?” he said.

Steven F, a nurse whose cousin is staying at the Brooklyn warehouse and who did not want to give his last name due to the nature of his job, said the system needs to do better.

He was at the warehouse on Friday morning to pick up his cousin, who had arrived from Brazil and was staying at the Watson Hotel for three months. He did not have any warm clothes, so the two were planning to go shopping.

“You can’t spoil them and then expect to kick them out – it’s not really a good system,” he said. “A better approach would have been to put them in housing or put them in a shelter at the beginning and then help them out to get housing.”

Some of the migrants who were sent to Brooklyn last weekend were so appalled at their treatment that they returned to the Manhattan hotel to protest their removal. Nearly 70 migrants camped out with tents and makeshift beds on the sidewalk in front of the entrance of the hotel.

They rested their heads on their bags, and used blankets provided by volunteers to bundle up. By Wednesday evening, those had been removed, along with other belongings that had been thrown away by city officials during a sweep – including bikes, migrants say, that some used for delivery work.

“​​The only items discarded were those on the street,” the mayor’s office said in a statement to the Guardian. “Any items asylum seekers had in their rooms are still in our care and will remain available for pick up,” read part of the statement.

As New York City endured a cold wave that could freeze one’s fingertips in minutes, many of the migrants were still without gloves and sufficient warm clothes. Furthermore, the accommodation in which they are being put up in is close to the East River in an area that saw historic floods during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 – an area that is extremely vulnerable to climate disasters.

Uzurin worked in the neighborhood in the aftermath of the hurricane, and remembers cleaning up “destroyed belongings” in the warehouses.

“It’s a risky place to put a facility”, he said, “and to discard migrants.”