Gotham Gazette

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Help Needed for Those Helping Newcomers to New York City

Serving asylum-seekers (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Recently, Mayor Eric Adams traveled to El Paso, Texas to shine a bright light on the burgeoning border crisis ramifications facing New York and other cities. He followed up that visit with a plea for help at a meeting of the American Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C.

When tens of thousands of asylum-seekers, refugees, and other migrants arrived in New York with little more than the clothes on their backs, the immediate focus was on providing temporary housing. In that regard, the city has opened more than 70 emergency shelters and four ‘humanitarian relief centers.’ Without much notice, nonprofit organizations have stepped in since the beginning of this crisis to provide not only a roof over their heads, but a broader range of critical services to support the long-term stability of those who are starting over in New York City.

These organizations have been working with city agencies and putting all their strained resources on the line to help support more than 40,000 newcomers who have arrived in New York since last spring. The city projects up to $4 billion in ultimate costs for these services over two years, and as a result is planning budget cuts in other essential areas. City shelters are filled to capacity and beyond, and Mayor Adams has declared a state of emergency.

The federal government has to date approved $800 million in grants for states, local governments, and nongovernmental organizations dealing with the increase in migrants and thankfully much of it is reportedly expected to flow to New York City. Mayor Adams has also submitted an emergency aid request to New York State for immediate help to shelter arriving newcomers and Governor Hochul has proposed funding in her budget plan.

We are grateful that Washington is beginning to realize that New York City should not have to foot this bill alone. The federal government and the state of New York must do more to help. 

Many recent refugees risked their lives to escape economic hardship and political turmoil in Venezuela and elsewhere, hoping to find safety and a better life for their families. Some are now seeking asylum. After the trauma and life changes they endured, they have many needs beyond just housing – food, health care, legal paperwork, English language education, employment opportunities, and school for their children. To achieve lasting stability, they need support in all these ways, and more. 

BronxWorks, the organization I head, is one of the many nonprofits helping to support migrants. As a settlement house, this work is in our DNA. Settlement houses were founded to support newly-arriving immigrants to adjust to life in the city. Since the beginning of this crisis, we have provided support to needy migrant families, and this past September, we rapidly set up a family sanctuary shelter to meet their specific needs. More than a dozen BronxWorks staffers worked around the clock, many on their own time over a weekend, to get our family sanctuary up and running. Within weeks, we housed 300 individuals, including 110 children, in studios with a kitchenette and shared laundry facilities. 

We’ve welcomed families like Roberto, Claudia, and their five-year-old daughter, who fled persecution in Venezuela to pursue a safer life here in the United States. Our shelter now serves 90 families.

BronxWorks staff have not let up, working hard to ensure all the needs of these families are met. We connect our newest neighbors to resources for food and health care, employment, and other services. We have helped them secure NYC-IDs so they have a form of identification, as well as access to enriching cultural and arts opportunities in their new home. As families are settling in, they are learning English, enrolling their children in school, and forming community connections.

This is what many nonprofits in New York City do. As the leader of a nonprofit in the Bronx and a board member of the Human Services Council of New York, I’ve seen what organizations across the city are doing in the face of this true emergency. We have doubled down on our efforts, just as we did during the pandemic, because it is our mission, and despite the fact that we are already stretched thin.

The unsustainable influx of newcomers to New York City is a national problem and more funding as well other housing locations around the state and elsewhere must be identified, or this current system will be unable to effectively support these families as they make the transition into their new lives. New York City didn’t create this crisis and can’t bear the burden alone. Neither can the nonprofit community.

Eileen Torres is executive director of BronxWorks, a human service organization and settlement house based in the Bronx and founded in 1972. On Twitter @BronxWorks.

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