Churches, synagogues, mosques could help NYC shelter migrants


A struggling city initiative aimed at paying houses of worship to shelter migrants is getting a reboot that could see dozens of religious institutions welcoming newcomers, according to immigrant rights activists, housing experts and interfaith leaders involved in the effort.

Negotiations between city officials and the faith leaders, joined by immigrant rights and housing activists, have progressed on compromises, including on bed limits and fire safety provisions, the non-governmental officials say could make more institutions eligible to house migrants – amid an influx that has seen more than 120,000 arrive since spring 2022.

Adams administration officials declined to comment on the status of the negotiations, which come as city officials say they are running out of options for housing migrants. Adams recently instituted 30- and 60-day stay limits for the newcomers, as part of a plan to free up shelter beds for newly arrived migrants, mostly asylum-seekers applying for sanctuary in the U.S.

The $75 million faith-based shelter program, launched by the Adams administration with the nonprofit New York Disaster Interfaith Services in early June, was intended to provide nearly 1,000 beds across as many as 50 houses of worship. Instead, the vast majority of the faith-based organizations that applied for the program were deemed ineligible, leaving the initiative far short of its goals.

But activists long frustrated by the bureaucratic roadblocks said they are encouraged by a renewed push by the city to advance the initiative, including a key change that would see participating institutions house up to 15 migrants each, lowered from an initial target of 19. By lowering the figure, people involved in the negotiations say participating institutions wouldn’t be required to adhere to more stringent fire codes.

Other changes include allowing designated fire wardens to staff facilities, providing protection for residents in lieu of sprinklers and fire detection and suppression systems, costly infrastructure not in place at many facilities being eyed for shelter, participants in the talks told Gothamist.

“Every sector — nonprofit, faith-based, government, and the business community — is striving to do what they can to welcome the newest New Yorkers,” said the Rev. Chloe Breyer, the executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York, which has played a central role in the program. “Should it happen more quickly? Yes.”

Spokespeople for the FDNY did not respond to a request for comment.

‘The faith community stands ready’

In June, Adams stood with leaders from different religious backgrounds as he announced the launch of the program. He was flanked by Pastor Gil Monrose, who serves as a faith adviser to the mayor and runs the Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships

“The faith community stands ready to work with New York City in order to support migrants who are here,” Monrose said. “Some call it a crisis, we call it an opportunity.”

At the time, the city was caring for 46,000 migrants, a figure that has since grown to 67,200, and the administration has doubled down on claims it has run out of space for migrants, who are now housed in some 200 facilities throughout the city, with no end to the influx in sight.

For many city leaders and advocates, it was an obvious move.

Houses of worship in New York and across the nation have a long history in housing immigrants, including during an uptick in deportations at the start of the Trump presidency. Nationwide, hundreds of religious institutions took in immigrants lacking permanent legal status, shielding them from Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker who is president and CEO of Win, the city’s largest provider of shelters, said churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith-based institutions have been “on the front line” of helping immigrants who were new to New York.

“They should be the first place a mayor calls when you have a crisis like this,” Quinn said.

She charged that support for the initiative “dissipated” within the administration, until pressured by a number of groups, including the Episcopal diocese of New York, the Coalition for the Homeless and others who are part of the newly formed NY SANE Coalition, which has been pushing for the city to retain its right-to-shelter laws for the unhoused.

“So people are really around the table, drilling down on the finances, drilling down on the possibilities with the fire department regs,” Quinn said.

‘Not a good number’

The faith-based shelter program is overseen by Housing Preservation and Development. City officials and activists have said that faith-based institutions have been rejected in many instances due to requirements that their spaces meant to shelter migrants overnight be equipped with sprinkler systems. Others didn’t make the cut because they lacked enough showers for residents.

At a City Council oversight hearing on Oct. 23, George Sarkissian, HPD’s chief of staff, said that just two houses of worship had been enrolled in the program, with “a couple on deck.”

“Two so far, out of the 50?” Councilmember Gale Brewer asked. “Not a good number.”

“There are difficulties getting them safe and prepared,” Sarkissian said. “We’re working with FDNY and DOB [Department of Buildings] to do it safely.”

Immigrant rights advocates say the messy rollout of the program has alienated some houses of worship that were willing to accommodate migrants even before the city got involved, but were then told that their buildings lacked necessary safety features.

“It was a slap in their face because they were already doing this for free,” said Adama Bah, the founder of Afrikana community center in Harlem, who also works with the grassroots group Artists-Athletes-Activists, which has been assisting migrants.

Ruth Messinger, the former Manhattan borough president and a board member at the Interfaith Center of New York, said the daily challenge of dealing with tens of thousands of migrants has made it difficult for the administration to effectively involve nonprofit groups and other stakeholders.

“I think that the city is struggling to meet those challenges and they are not always thinking as creatively as they might in how to take advantage of the vast amount of public interest and support for the immigrant community,” Messinger said.

‘Shame on the city’

Although she contends a breakthrough will likely happen soon, she said it will require city agencies to make allowances for faith-based institutions that can’t make sweeping changes to their infrastructure.

“Obviously installing a sprinkler system is a not insignificant capital expense,” she said. On the other hand, having people on hand who have fire guard training “might involve some expense, but you don’t have to take your building apart.”

As many of the faith leaders, activists and others have taken note, the migrants keep coming, and the cold weather is here.

“It’s gotten to the point where it is getting desperate,” said Power Malu, the executive director of Artists-Athletes-Activists. “We had a couple of days with 25-30 degree weather in the mornings and that is a reminder of what’s to come.”

However, Malu said he thinks city officials “are turning the corner” and are closer to making the faith-based shelter system viable.

As does Quinn, who said one sticking point will be the finances, as houses of worship will need to spend upfront and recoup costs from the city afterward.

“I think they’re going to come to a solution very soon,” said Quinn. “And if they don’t, shame on the city. Because so many faith leaders have made it clear how much they want to help.”

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