Migrant families and schools brace for wave of shelter evictions

Families stand in front of a hotel with their belongings in plastic bags.
Migrant families moving to and from the Roosevelt Hotel ahead of a 60-day shelter limit, Jan. 5, 2024. (Alex Krales/THE CITY)

This article is part of an ongoing collaboration between Chalkbeat and THE CITY.

Thousands of migrant families with school-aged children will begin having their time in city shelters run out starting Tuesday as the first 60-day eviction notices, which the city began passing out in October, start to expire.

Among those whose time runs out Tuesday is Joana, 38, a Venezuelan mother who asked that her last name not be used. She said in recent days she’s been having hard conversations with her 8-year-old daughter about what’s in store.

“I try to explain to her as gently as I can the reality,” Joana said in Spanish. “So she can understand why we’re leaving this place, where her school bus comes to get her, where she’s lived for a year, and where she feels like it’s part of her home.”

The shelter evictions for families with children mark the beginning of yet another city policy shift on homelessness, as Mayor Eric Adams struggles to contend with a ballooning shelter population driven largely by the arrival of more than 160,000 migrants, which cost the city $1.4 billion last fiscal year.

Through the end of December, 122,700 people were living in shelters, including over 68,300 migrants, the vast majority of whom are families with children.

Thus far only adults without children have been subject to the Adams administration’s attempts to eject migrants from city shelters. The city has limited their stays to 30 days. In order to reapply for another stint afterwards, adults must now brave long lines in the cold for hours and sleep on the floor of various waiting rooms for more than a week, with limited access to food and showers, before they can secure another cot.

To date, most families with children have been spared this kind of disruption. Adams has repeatedly said his administration’s goal is for no families with children to sleep on the streets — but exactly how family evictions will be carried out is still unclear.

Since the city unveiled its family eviction policy in October, about a third of migrant families in the city’s care have been hit with 60-day eviction notices, or around 4,800 families, a city spokesperson said.

Kayla Mamelak, a spokesperson for the Adams administration, said families who have nowhere else to go when their time in shelters ends will be directed to return to the Roosevelt Hotel, the city’s main intake center, to request another 60-day placement. The city will try to place families in or near the school district where kids are currently enrolled in schools, she added. No child would be forced to change schools, as is required by federal law.

But up through last week, those instructions still hadn’t been communicated to families directly in writing. Several 60-day notices distributed to families reviewed by THE CITY only said that the city would help send you to another location, and if you had any further questions you could talk to staff at the hotel. Parents who spoke with THE CITY said social workers had told them about the option to go to the Roosevelt Hotel.

Joana said that’s where she planned to do Tuesday: pull her daughter out of school for at least for the day and head to the Roosevelt Hotel to try to get another shelter placement.

“I’m trusting in God that we’ll have another place to stay,” she said in Spanish.

Mamelak reiterated Mayor Adams’ frequent plea that with 33,000 migrant children enrolled in schools since June of 2022, the city still needs more help from the state and federal governments.

“While we are grateful for the assistance from our state and federal partners, for months, we have warned that, without more, this crisis could play out on city streets,” Mamelak said. “It is crucial — now, more than ever — that the federal government finish the job they started by allowing migrants to immediately work, and to come up with a strategy that ensures migrants are not convening on one, or even just a handful of cities across the country.”

‘I have no idea what to do’

The evictions are slated to begin at the Row Hotel in Midtown on Tuesday, which has rooms for 1,000 families. Forty families will run out of time on the first day, and another 250 families will see their shelter stays expire during the first week, according to Josh Goldfein, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, who is in direct communication with city agencies on behalf of the Coalition for the Homeless.

After the Row, other families at other Midtown hotels like The Stewart, The Watson, and the Wolcott will see their time run out, expanding to around 100 families ejected per day in the coming weeks, Goldfein said.

Ahead of the evictions, residents of The Row who spoke with THE CITY described a mix of anxiety, dread, and resolve.

“The kids have already missed so much school,” said Yeisi Zerpa, a 26-year-old Venezuelan mother of four, who said she’d had to pull the kids out of school to apartment hunt ahead of her eviction date Tuesday.

“If every 60 days I’m going to leave the shelter and get back in line, that’s going to be stress all the time, the kids won’t be able to go to school,” she said in Spanish.

With the help of a kind woman she’d met while begging for change and subsequently become friends with, she’d managed to find a room her family of six would share in a Bronx apartment.

Zerpa is still waiting for her work permit to come through, and was looking for work cleaning houses, but wasn’t sure how she’d pay the rent going forward.

“I have no idea what to do,” she said, adding she was still trying to figure out if she should keep her daughters at the same school or transfer them to somewhere closer. In the weeks ahead of her eviction, she said social workers at the Row offered little guidance.

“No one has helped us to find a rental,” she added. “You ask the social worker a question and they don’t know anything. You don’t have the help of anyone there.”

City officials didn’t return a request for comment about how many people had moved out ahead of their evictions this week. But several other families who spoke with THE CITY said they had managed to secure alternative living arrangements ahead of their final days at the hotel.

Lorena Espinosa Castro, a 36-year-old mother of two from Peru, was moving out trash bags of her belongings on a recent afternoon, headed to a studio apartment in Corona that she’d rented for $800 a month through a friend. In nearly a year in New York City, Castro had managed to find work as a server in a Mexican restaurant not so far from her new apartment.

“The truth is I always wanted to get out of there,” Castro said in Spanish. “I couldn’t cook. My girls, we didn’t eat well. It’s our moment to be more independent. I fought for it.”

“The help of the government is over,” she said.

At some Manhattan elementary schools with large populations of migrant students, families have already started disappearing as the deadlines for the 60-day notices approach.

“Since about two weeks prior to the vacation, we’ve lost a lot of students,” including around 10 this week alone, said a teacher at a Manhattan elementary school that’s enrolled a large number of migrant families, including many living at The Row. The teacher spoke on the condition of anonymity and asked that the school not be named for fear of retaliation.

Watching students who have been at the school for months and built connections abruptly drop off of the school roster is wrenching, the teacher said.

“There’s something really special about watching students grow in a space and become acclimated and familiar. So it’s hard when they’re moved,” the teacher said.

Many other migrants who spoke with THE CITY ahead of their eviction dates said they hadn’t been able to find anywhere else to go and planned to return to the Roosevelt Hotel hoping for another place to stay.

Piedad, a 49-year-old mother who asked that her last name be withheld, expressed a fear that they’d be sent to the far off tents at Floyd Bennett field, where families live in a quasi-congregate setting miles from the nearest neighborhood — a concern shared by many families in recent days.

“We’re hoping, with God’s will, we’ll get another shelter, and not the tents,” she said in Spanish.

‘We’re adding to these kids’ trauma’

Since October, the city has been issuing 60-day notices to families that have been staying in shelters run by the city Health and Hospitals system for more than a year, as well as many more recently arrived families, including all those at Floyd Bennett Field.

So far, the approximately 8,800 migrant families living in shelters overseen by the city’s Department of Homeless Services, which is subject to more strict state oversight, have been spared the shelter evictions. In November, however, city officials requested permission from the state to expand the policy to those families as well, according to Anthony Farmer, a spokesperson for the state’s office of Temporary Disability Administration. As of last week, the state had still not granted that request.

Goldfein and other advocates have looked at the daily chaos unfurling outside the city’s reticketing site in the East Village and fear a similarly dire situation could await families with young kids later this week.

“We’re certainly very concerned,” Goldfein said. “We asked about that and they believe they have it under control. But we’ll see.”

Schools are also preparing for another destabilizing shuffle, the Manhattan teacher told THE CITY, as some students leave and new ones come in.

“All year is just constantly readjusting to try to catch students up, readjust the dynamics of the classroom, rebuild community,” the teacher said. “It’s a heavy load for teachers.”

One Education Department source familiar with planning for the 60-day notices called the educational impact on children would be immense. “We’re adding to these kids’ trauma,” the source said.

Unlike the Department of Homeless Services, which has a data sharing agreement with the Education Department so schools can directly look up where homeless students have been transferred too, Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs large-scale family migrant shelters, has no similar arrangement. Schools will thus be flying blind come Tuesday.

“The only thing these children have consistently in their lives is school,” the source said. “So now you’re taking them out of shelter, you’re putting them someplace else. They’re not gonna be in school for a few days easily. They have to adjust to a new environment and if they’re lucky, they figure out how to get back to that school.”

The Education Department has been recommending families bring information about their schools with them to the Roosevelt Hotel, so that they might be placed in the same borough as their child’s school.

Nicole Brownstein, a spokesperson for the Education Department, said schools had been working directly with emergency shelters, “to support all students and their families and ensure there is no gap in services, whether they transition to a new school community or choose to stay in their current school.”

The city has touted their 30-day policy for adults for reducing the number of people who return to seek another 30-day placement to just 20% of those who had their time run out.

But Goldfein with the Legal Aid Society said if the city really needed to move people around, it could reassign them directly from their current hotels, instead of sending them into a lurch of uncertainty at the Roosevelt Hotel, where it’s not clear where they’ll end up or how long it will take. He described the situation as a “logistical nightmare merry-go-round.”

“There’s a bigger question of why do you need to do this,” he said. “Do you need people to move just to harass them? To push them to move out?”

Gwynne Hogan covers Brooklyn for THE CITY.

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at melsen-rooney@chalkbeat.org.

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