Migrants abruptly shuffled from Coney Island school to midtown office

A woman in black and two men look through items at a clothing drive.
Coney Island residents set up a clothing drive for migrants Wednesday morning. Several grabbed donations before getting onto buses to be sent to another undisclosed location, May 17, 2023. (Courtesy of Anthony Batista)

This story was originally published on May 17 by THE CITY.

Jose Materano, 33, hadn’t bathed in six days, and it was unclear when he might get to do so again. 

Materano is one of about 75 asylum-seekers abruptly relocated from a Coney Island school gymnasium Wednesday morning to a vacant office space formerly used by Touro College across from Moynihan Train Hall in Midtown. Neither facility had showers on site.

But as he sat in the afternoon sun outside the new emergency migrant shelter, he said he was grateful to be here in the U.S. 

“Even though they didn’t have space, they opened places to help us, so we wouldn’t be in the streets,” he told THE CITY in Spanish. 

Materano said he was drawn to New York City by a cousin who arrived a year ago and is now working in a supermarket and renting a room in Queens. 

His aim is “to work and become independent and give back to the country,” he said. “I’d work doing anything.”

The move from southern Brooklyn to the middle of Manhattan came after Mayor Eric Adams’s administration reversed itself, as first reported by THE CITY, just days after it began prepping six schools across Brooklyn to begin receiving migrants.

The sudden shift followed a day of parents protesting outside school buildings across the borough on Tuesday. Preparations to receive migrants had been underway at P.S. 172 in Sunset Park, P.S. 189 in Crown Heights, and P.S. 132, P.S. 17 and P.S. 18 in Williamsburg, while some asylum-seekers had already moved into to P.S. 188 in Coney Island and the former P721R Richard H. Hungerford school building on Staten Island over the weekend. 

‘Life as usual!’

By late morning on Wednesday those plans had changed, and buses were lined up outside P.S. 188 to transport migrants to another location, said eyewitnesses on site.

Juan Carlos, a 29-year-old from Venezuela, was among those asylum-seekers bused from Coney Island to Midtown. After getting settled in, Carlos said the vacant office space was an upgrade from the gym where he had been staying. With ten people in his new room, he said, it was also more privacy than he’d had at shelters in Denver and El Paso. 

“Where we are is better than where we came from. You always have to have a little patience,” he said in Spanish. “From here, they’re going to send us to another site. But for now we’re good.”

A City Hall source confirmed the about-face, saying school communities across Brooklyn would have access to their gymnasiums again in the coming days. They said it was unclear what might happen to all the cots set up there over the past several days there; school staff might have to fold and store them.

The Staten Island facility would continue to house migrants, as it is not an active school, the source said. 

Spokespeople for Mayor Adams did not immediately return a request for comment. 

By early Wednesday afternoon, parents at P.S. 17 in Williamsburg got a triumphant letter from school administrators.

“I can confirm that we will be getting our gym back very soon!” the note read, adding they were still waiting for official word from City Hall. “The facility will need to be broken down and disinfected, and since it is an emergency shelter location I cannot say that it won’t be utilized again in the future. But for now we will be getting back to life as usual!”

Brooklyn Councilmember Ari Kagan said Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Zach Iscol told him the city was moving away from housing migrants in school gyms for the time being, though Iscol said that could change if the city sees another surge in arrivals. 

“All options are on the table. Everything is fluid,” Kagan said Iscol told him. 

‘Tough decisions’

At a previously scheduled press conference on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the city’s strategy for housing migrants, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom denied the administration was changing course and declined to answer specifics about the use of public school facilities. The gyms had always been meant for short-term stays, Williams-Isom said.  

“I’m not reversing strategy. The strategy was to have emergency sites for short-term respite, which always meant that people would move to another site when that became available,” she said. “So we are very consistent with our strategy and our planning and we’re gonna continue to do that so that I can assure that nobody sleeps on the streets of New York City.”

Williams-Isom implored other cities and towns to open their arms to migrants and help find locations where they could stay. 

“We are in an emergency and we are at a breaking point,” she said. 

Meanwhile, Councilmember Alexa Avilés (D-Brooklyn) said she was still waiting to hear directly from the administration about P.S. 172 in Sunset Park. 

“It’s very messy and unclear what is actually happening,” Avilés said. What she did know, she said, was there were cots and supplies in the school gym but no migrants staying there. 

“If you’re not going to use it, then take your stuff. We want to move the stuff out so we can use it for the kids. They’ve had so much disruption already.”

The Daily News reported earlier on Wednesday that city officials were considering using a shuttered jail building on Rikers Island to house migrants. The administration has also discussed using parks and airplane hangers to house migrants, according to previous reports.

Adams has repeatedly defended his administration’s handling of the migrant crisis, pointing to other cities like El Paso where asylum-seekers are sleeping in the streets. 

At a press conference Wednesday, he said that 900 people had arrived in New York City on a single day recently, and 4,200 had come in the last week. All told, 41,500 asylum seekers are staying in 150 emergency shelters across the city. 

“I’m willing to make the tough decisions and not get bottled down in what the optics are,” he said. “Whoever is telling us not to go somewhere, I have one question for them: ‘You tell me where we should go then.’”

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