NYC’s ‘right to shelter’ cannot survive with the state’s already strained resources

Standing in front of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City last week, I found myself immersed in a world that felt both foreign and tragically familiar. I’m a Venezuelan immigrant, but I never imagined encountering fellow countrymen who had fled our homeland’s desperate situation to live in shelters in the Big Apple, thousands of miles away.

Standing by the hotel entrance was Milagros, a name that means “miracles” in English — appropriately enough, given her story. She is a 21-year-old mother of two children, the oldest of whom turned six the day I met her. She described her heartbreaking life story and how she and her children made it to the US southern border. She was orphaned at age 10 after her mother’s death and cared for by her grandmother, but her grandmother died during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With no support system in place, Milagros left behind a country ravaged by Nicolas Maduro’s socialist regime, which has presided over an 80 percent decline in GDP and the world’s largest refugee crisis. On her trip north, Milagros was lucky not to be a victim of crime herself; she witnessed a family being kidnapped by a Mexican cartel in Ciudad Juárez, where she spent months while waiting to enter America. She also saw “traumatic things” while crossing the dangerous Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama, a roadless jungle that divides the Americas.

Why make the dangerous and expensive trip to America instead of trying to enter another South American country? “Peru, Ecuador, Colombia are filled with gangs,” Milagros said. “They kidnap people. [In the United States] I know something happens, and you can call someone; the law is different here. On the other hand, there, the police,” she said, implying that police in those countries are corrupt and unresponsive.

Migrants sleeping in front of the Roosevelt Hotel.
Many migrants came to New York City because they found out there’s free housing for migrants there.
Seth Gottfried

Thousands of migrants like Milagros have been flown and bused to the city by Texas and other states. New York City’s $225 million agreement with the Roosevelt Hotel has transformed this once-glamorous destination into a temporary shelter. The hope was to provide these people with a steppingstone to a new life. As I discovered from interviews, however, the reality is more complicated.

Another resident of the hotel-turned-shelter is Winifer, also a young mother from Venezuela. She came to America with her husband and youngest child, leaving two older children behind with grandparents. With tear-filled eyes, she spoke of the difficulty of feeding her family in Venezuela and of her older sons left behind there. In America, she said, her husband has found a job, a reason for hope. “In Venezuela we have no way to get ahead . . . we came here with the goal of getting ahead and helping our family left behind.”

Search for shelter

Adam, a 24-year-old migrant from Chad, stood on the sidewalk across from the hotel alongside other African immigrants. Chad, like Venezuela, is one of the world’s poorest countries and is governed by an authoritarian regime. Idriss Déby, the dictator who had ruled Chad since 1990 was killed in 2021 and replaced by a military junta that suspended the country’s already-meaningless constitution. Adam says that he spent two years studying biomedical sciences in Rwanda but didn’t finish his degree. Instead of staying there, he flew to Turkey, then to Colombia on the way to Ecuador, which doesn’t have a visa requirement for visitors from Chad. His final goal, however, was to reach the United States.

He chose America over Europe, “because here is a good place, even the government knows the importance of the human.” I asked if he thought people aren’t treated as well in Europe. “Here they treat us very well,” he replied, diplomatically.

Adam and his African friends also live in the city’s shelter system, though not at the Roosevelt. They don’t have jobs, but they’re looking. Adam said that finishing his biomedical sciences degree in America was his “dream.” He was clearly better educated than the average Chadian, relatively well dressed, spoke English (the most common languages in Chad are French and Arabic), and had accumulated enough money to take several international flights. In immigration economics, it’s a well-known fact that migrants from places farther away are more “positively selected,” because those with more resources or education tend to be better equipped to make the journey.

Recently arrived migrants to New York City wait on the sidewalk outside the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown, Manhattan, where a temporary reception center has been established in New York City, New York, U.S., August 1, 2023.
New York City’s $225 million agreement with the Roosevelt Hotel has transformed this once-glamorous destination into a temporary shelter.

I asked every migrant: “Why New York City?” Their responses varied but had a common thread: In New York City they could get housing at no cost.

Milagros said that Texas officials presented two choices when they offered her a flight out of state—Chicago or New York City — but strongly recommended coming to New York. Two other Venezuelan women, Mayolis and Maria, had friends and family already living in shelters here, so they came, too. In fact, Mayolis’s original plan was to go to Chile, but she traveled to the southern US border and then New York instead because her brother had obtained shelter here recently.

Immense suffering

New York City’s “right-to-shelter” policy is already encouraging people to leave their countries and it could summon tens of thousands of additional migrants, further straining the city’s already stretched resources. While compassionate in intent, the policy is unsustainable. 

Today, about 60,000 migrants reside in city shelters and temporary housing, outnumbering New Yorkers in those facilities. That number will only grow, as more migrants receive shelter and tell friends and family members about the opportunity.

I feel compassion for the shelter residents. They have suffered immensely, often through no fault of their own. The terrible situations from which they are fleeing are the responsibility of the authoritarian regimes and corrupt governments of their home countries. But on the altar of unlimited compassion, we risk sacrificing the very prosperity these migrants hope to achieve. The United States — much less New York City — cannot guarantee shelter for all the world’s oppressed.

The time has come for the city to reassess its “right to shelter” policy. 

I hope more New Yorkers will visit places like the Roosevelt Hotel to speak with the migrants and learn from this crisis. 

By speaking to these migrants, many Americans might learn to appreciate what they have—and come to a better understanding of how to preserve it.

Daniel Di Martino (@DanielDiMartino) is a graduate fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the founder of the Dissident Project. Reprinted with permission from City Journal.

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