Seven school gyms are housing migrants or could soon. Parents and pols are pushing back.

A temporary shelter inside P.S. 172’s gym in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
The city set up a temporary shelter inside P.S. 172’s gym in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. (Obtained by THE CITY)

This story was originally published on May 15 by THE CITY.

Seven public school gyms are now either in use as emergency shelter for migrants or are being readied for use, all but one of them in Brooklyn — prompting pushback from parents and local officials.

Over the weekend, as border restrictions known as Title 42 expired, agencies transported migrants to P721R Richard H. Hungerford School on Staten Island, a City Hall official confirmed, quickly filling it to its 500-person capacity.

The next destination was the gymnasium of P.S. 188 in Coney Island, which neared its capacity by Sunday, according to City Councilmember Ari Kagan (R-Brooklyn). 

By Monday, 67 cots were set up inside the gymnasium of P.S. 172 in Sunset Park, according to local Councilmember Alexa Avilés (D-Brooklyn). An additional four schools are slated to be used to house migrants as others fill up, according to the city source: P.S. 189 in Crown Heights, and PS 132, P.S. 17 and P.S. 18 in Williamsburg.

The decision by the administration of Mayor Eric Adams to resort to school gyms — after months of housing migrants in hotels, homeless shelters and facilities such as the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal — came with little notice to parents, school administrators and local elected officials, prompting alarm and frustration. 

A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams didn’t respond to a request for comment on the latest school sites selected to house migrants. 

“Given all the potential facilities available, I don’t understand why primarily elementary schools are being used,” said Jessamyn Lee, 48, a Brooklyn public school parent who sits on the Panel for Education Policy. 

“It’s undignified and inhumane,” Lee added. “There’s nowhere for them to shower and take care of their basic needs.”

Kagan said city officials told him P.S. 188 would be used for short-term stays of several days for up to 84 adults, but that more migrants may arrive after the people staying there move out. He said the city assured him mobile showers would be installed, likely on Tuesday. 

“We cannot promise you even when they leave in a few days that this gym will be returned to the Coney Island community,” Kagan said. “We don’t know what to expect if more people will come. It’s terrible. It’s unacceptable.” 

Adams’ office has not provided an updated count of recent arrivals, though through early May, more than 37,500 asylum seekers were staying in city shelters. Last week, Adams said the city had run out of space in hotels, with at least 140 emergency shelters in operation across the five boroughs, and was scrambling to identify facilities that have open layouts with more than 10,000 square feet.

Photos obtained by THE CITY Monday showed boxes of diapers and new cribs inside P.S. 172’s school gym in Sunset Park, seeming to indicate the facility would house young children imminently. 

The photos caused newfound alarm for attorney Joshua Goldfein of The Legal Aid Society, who has been monitoring the rapidly evolving situation on behalf of Society client Coalition for the Homeless, to ensure the city’s right-to-shelter legal agreements are honored.

Anticipating a surge in arriving migrants ahead of Title 42’s expiration last week, Adams signed an executive order relaxing right to shelter regulations, by waiving the city’s requirement to provide bathrooms, refrigerators, kitchens and “an adequate sleeping area” to homeless families. Goldfein pointed to state regulations still in place that bar children from being housed in congregate settings, where they’re more susceptible to disease and abuse.

“Each time we have identified children placed in a congregate site, the city has told us we will move those families out,” Goldfein said. “I don’t understand why the city would be storing supplies for small children at a congregate shelter site.” 

Goldfein subsequently asked city officials about housing children in the Sunset Park gymnasium and they told him they have no plans to do so, he said. He got the explanation that prepackaged pallets of supplies were sent to the school and happened to include items for children. Adams’ office didn’t immediately return a request for comment on the facility. 

Councilmember Avilés said she had concerns about fire safety, student arrival and dismissal, and where after-school programs would be held. 

“The community has been welcoming [immigrants]; we receive people every day,” she said. “But this situation is particularly untenable because of all these conditions.”

A spokesperson for the city’s Office of Emergency Management and the Department of Education referred all comments to the mayor’s office. 

The schools the city selected thus far all have freestanding gymnasiums, according to multiple sources. One source at City Hall said it might not stop there: “They’re looking at parks and playgrounds if it gets worse.”

Several groups of concerned parents planned multiple rallies outside Brooklyn schools for Tuesday morning. Lee said she’s already seen online conversations online veer into vitriolic anti-immigrant and xenophobic territory, something that could have been headed off with more planning, she said.

“Unfortunately that is being directed at the migrants themselves,” she said. “I do worry about the safety of the asylees.”

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