NYC sends families from tent shelter to sleep on school floor during storm

Yellow schools buses driving at night on a rain-slicked road.
The city evacuated migrants from Floyd Bennett Field while a major storm brought strong rain and winds, Jan. 9, 2023. (Alex Krales/THE CITY)

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

Officials hastily moved hundreds of families living at the Floyd Bennett Field migrant shelter in Brooklyn early Tuesday evening as a powerful storm with wind gusts exceeding 60 miles per hour hit the city.

The families were bused to relatively nearby James Madison High School, in Marine Park, to rest as best they could in chairs or on floors. By 4:30 a.m. Wednesday morning the winds had died down and families were bused back to Floyd Bennett, according to the city’s Office of Emergency Management.

Despite that scheduled departure time, an alert sent by the school late Tuesday afternoon advised students and their parents that classes would “pivot to remote” on Wednesday.

The sudden move by the Adams administration drew ire from all sides, with homeless rights advocates and the migrants themselves decrying the disruption for families, and local parents slamming the city’s use of the public school.

People living at the field shelter made of tents described a chaotic and stressful day that included: learning of the impromptu evacuation just hours before it was slated to occur before 4 p.m. racing back to the Floyd Bennett after picking up their children from schools to try to catch the buses to Madison; and crowding in the school’s auditorium and cafeteria with hundreds of others spending the night in chairs or on the ground.

“They want us like animals sending us from here to there,” a 31-year-old mother of three from Venezuela told THE CITY in Spanish, asking that her name be withheld out of fear of retribution for speaking out. ‘’This is craziness.”

She noted that she was thankful for the help of the city for a place to stay — “but this isn’t how children and families should be treated.”

A group of people in rain jackets enter a school building as two guards are at the door.
A group of migrants race into James Madison High School in Brooklyn after city officials evacuated Floyd Bennett Field during a rainstorm, Jan. 9, 2023. (Alex Krales/THE CITY)

In an impromptu press conference early Tuesday afternoon to announce and explain the evacuation, city Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Zachary Iscol, said the agency started notifying families at the shelter at 11 a.m that buses would take them to Madison High School that evening.

By that time many families had already left the shelter for the day for jobs and school, though word spread of the planned evacuation on WhatsApp groups.

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“We are doing this out of an abundance of caution because of the high winds,” Iscol said.

Iscol said that tents shelters for migrant adults on Randall’s Island and Creedmoor Psychiatric Facility were not slated for evacuation because both had more protection from the wind and pilings dug into the ground that made them more sturdy than the Floyd Bennett location.

“It’s a really complex operation,” he added.

Spokespeople for OEM, the mayor’s office, and the city’s hospitals system, which runs many migrant shelters, didn’t respond to requests for comment immediately about the lack of cots for the migrants staying at the high school.

Critics of Mayor Eric Adams’ handling of the arrival of migrants denounced the rapid move out of hundreds of children and families.

“The need for the city to find temporary shelter for the people already in temporary shelter demonstrates that the site was not adequately set up for extreme weather on top of the hardship this isolated and inadequately serviced location, miles from the nearest neighborhood school, already imposes on its residents,” said city Comptroller Brad Lander, a regular critic of the mayor.

‘It’s overwhelming’

The evacuation Tuesday came the same day evictions began for migrant families staying in the Row Hotel in Manhattan, as part of the city’s new policy limiting shelter stays for some migrant families to just 60 days.

Around 40 families were forced to leave Tuesday, officials from the city’s Health and Hospital corporation said, with the number expected to quickly ramp up to around 100 families per day. About 4,800 families have received 60-day notices that will force them out of hotel rooms in the coming weeks, city officials said.

Maria Quero, 26, who is eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her first child, said she’d begged her social workers at the Row to let her stay until after she gave birth. She’d presented a doctor’s note to staff, she said, but was denied an extension.

A pregnant woman with glasses and long black hair wearing a green scarf over black clothes talks on a cell phone.
Pregnant migrant, Maria, leaves the Row Hotel shelter after receiving an eviction notice, Jan. 9, 2024. (Alex Krales/THE CITY)

Instead she trudged across Midtown with her husband from the Row to the Roosevelt Hotel Tuesday morning to ask for another 60-day placement while hoping to still make her prenatal doctor’s appointment later that day.

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“I can’t be sitting down a lot, my hips are hurting,” she said in Spanish. “It’s overwhelming, it’s really stressful.”

By that evening Quero said she’d be reassigned to a shelter in Brooklyn.

Asked about Quero’s situation at the Tuesday press briefing, Dr. Ted Long, who oversees migrant shelters run by NYC Health and Hospitals, said: “We look forward to helping Maria.

“They deserve that stability — that stability can never be in the hotel room,” Long added, speaking generally about why the city has set 60-day shelter stay limits for families. “It can only be with our help, how we get them to complete their journey.”

‘Everyone is feeling sad’

Staff at James Madison — the alma matter of both U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer — said they first learned of the plan around noon Tuesday. They were told that the migrant families would arrive after students left Tuesday afternoon and would be gone by the time school starts Wednesday morning.

“It’s an enormous logistical challenge, but if you throw enough bodies at it you can do it,” said a staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Sixteen-year-old junior Spencer Katz said students learned about the evacuation Tuesday afternoon, and most of the discussion focused on whether or not school would be canceled Wednesday.

“I was expecting some people to be racist,” Katz said, but “I was pretty pleasantly surprised by how cool everyone was about it … Every single person I know has an immigrant as a parent or grandparent, so everyone was pretty understanding.”

As supportive as some students were, local Republican Councilmember Inna Vernikov denounced the use of the school in a video on X directed at Adams. “This is unacceptable!” she posted. “Stop this now and take the migrants into Gracie Mansion!”

The shelter has already proven a lightning rod in the GOP-leaning district and word of migrants moving into the school drew ire of right wing commentators and some residents. Video posted to X by a reporter for The New York Post showed a woman who identified herself as “an agitated mother,” heckling the migrants, yelling they were “taking over” her kids’ school.

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“How does it feel that you kicked all the kids out of school tomorrow?” she yelled. “I hope you sleep really well tonight.”

The Adams administration also faced pushback from homeless rights advocates at the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless, who issued a joint statement slamming the city’s hasty evacuation as “traumatic and disruptive.”

“This last-minute evacuation further proves that Floyd Bennett Field — a facility mired in a flood zone, miles from schools and other services — has never and will never serve as an appropriate and safe place to shelter families with children,” the group said.

An earlier wind storm in mid-December also caused chaos for migrant families, many of whom described a sleepless night with crying children, or were terrified the tents would collapse.

A 38-year-old mother of three, who asked that her name not be published to avoid repercussions from staff at the shelter said the latest commotion at the tents were stressful and exhausting for families.

“It’s not a life, it’s not good for the kids,” she said. “Everyone is feeling sad.”

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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