New York is set to open a winterized tent shelter for newly arrived asylum seekers on Randalls Island on Wednesday. The facility, with beds for about 500 single men as well as a recreation center and cafeteria, will begin operations as soon as buses begin arriving at Port Authority in the morning, officials said.
The selection of the site, on a windy, difficult-to-reach island in the East River that houses a Fire Department facility, athletic fields and summer festivals — but no homes or businesses — has been roundly criticized by members of the City Council, who said it would be inhumane during the winter.
But as officials led a gaggle of reporters through the 84,400-square-foot facility on Tuesday, they insisted that it would be more comfortable than existing shelters. Brand-new sheets and pillows sat atop rows of cots, and the recreation room featured plush couches, big-screen televisions and games like chess, Scrabble and cribbage. A table nearby was full of office phones capable of making international calls, and there was Wi-Fi throughout the facility.
There were new washers and dryers where officials said that laundry would be cleaned and folded for the migrants, as well as wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and trailers where people could be isolated as they await the results of tests for communicable diseases.
The officials said the goal of the facility was to allow people to rest after their long journey — typically from Texas, where thousands of migrants have been bused into New York in recent months — and to allow a more thorough intake than what is possible at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan where they arrive.
“Forty-five minutes is not enough time to reach a family member who you may not have spoken with in days, weeks, months, years, figure out where you’re going to be for the next several years of your life,” said Dr. Ted Long, a senior official in the city’s public health care system.
“You need more time, and that’s what we’re going to do here.”
Dozens of people being trained to work at the site were also on hand. Officials said that 90 percent of the case managers spoke Spanish, and would help people get in touch with contacts in the United States, ascertain where they wanted to go, assess their medical needs and provide other services. A cafeteria will provide three meals a day.
A security team was also on hand and was coordinating with local law enforcement, they said. While the men will be free to come and go as they please, there will be a 10 p.m. curfew. The goal is to have people stay at the facility for about four days, but there will be no limit to how long migrants can remain, they said.
While the officials could not provide a number for the total cost of the facility, they put it in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, noting that the shelter could be scaled up to house 500 additional people, though more staff would have to be hired for that.
The tour was led by Anne Williams-Isom, deputy mayor for health and human services; Zach Iscol, commissioner for emergency management; Manuel Castro, commissioner of immigrant affairs; and Dr. Long.
Mr. Iscol said the city had looked at more than 80 sites before deciding on Randalls Island. A previous project to construct tents at Orchard Beach, in the Bronx, was abandoned after an uproar from local residents, immigrants rights advocates and elected officials from around the city. There was particular concern about flooding that occurred there during a mild rain.
Mr. Iscol said that flooding would not be an issue at Randalls Island because the parking lot on which the tents were constructed were slightly above ground level. He put the cost to “demobilize” the Orchard Beach site at $325,000.
“There is no perfect place to be doing these kinds of operations,” Mr. Iscol said.
The facilities are temperature-controlled, Mr. Iscol said, and will be able to stay warm as the weather cools. It was unclear how long the facility would remain open.
The buses that have been arriving at the Port Authority have largely been coming from El Paso, Texas, and while the flow appeared to slow after the federal government announced last week that it would not allow Venezuelan asylum seekers across the southern border, officials said that buses were still arriving.
Ms. Williams-Isom said the city was “very appreciative” of the Biden administration’s efforts to slow the arrival of migrants, and that it was asking for more federal support to deal with the influx. The city has submitted an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she said.
The city was also looking at different funding sources, including donations, to pay for tickets for migrants who want to live in other states, the officials said. Mr. Castro said that some migrants had taken the free ticket to New York to get out of Texas, but that they ultimately wanted to go to Florida, where there is a large Venezuelan community.
Families with children will be sent to the Row Hotel in Midtown for services similar to those offered on Randalls Island, the officials said, adding that there were few single women among the arrivals.
Earlier this month, as the city’s shelter system became overwhelmed, Mayor Eric Adams announced a state of emergency, allowing New York to bypass the usual regulations associated with operating homeless shelters. The city is calling the new facility on Randalls Island a “humanitarian emergency center.”
Mr. Castro said this influx of immigrants was markedly different than any other in the previous century. He said the difference was the situation at the border in Texas, where officials are putting people on buses to northern cities to draw attention to a rising number of migrants. He said that people were being given a choice between a free bus to a northern city or making it on their own with practically nothing, which amounted to a form of coercion.
“This situation is being caused by political actors and New York City is just having to respond,” he said.