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Transcript: Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom to Hold Briefing on Asylum Seeker Crisis

July 12, 2023

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Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom, Health and Human Services: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Anne Williams-Isom, and I'm the deputy mayor for Health and Human Services. I'm joined this week, at my briefing on the asylum seeker crisis, by Molly Park, the commissioner for the Department of Social Services.

In my last briefing, I talked about the fact that the city has reached a tipping point, and about how we now have more than 100,000 people in our care. We have continued to respond to this tremendous need, but we also continue to make progress on moving New Yorkers out of shelter and into permanent housing. Since lifting the 90-day rule, over 500 households have become eligible for our CityFHEPS vouchers. That's 500 households that would have had to wait without the elimination of that rule. I'm also proud that over this last year, more people have connected to CityFHEPS vouchers than in any other year in history. Even as we deal with this humanitarian crisis, we are connecting a record number nearly 15,000 households to CityFHEPS vouchers.

Over 100,000 people in our care is a staggering number, but as we continue to respond to support asylum seekers, we are doubling down on our efforts to move people to permanent housing from our shelter system. With that, I want to share some of our latest numbers on the asylum seeker crisis, and then turn it to Commissioner Molly to say a few words.

As of July 9th, we have over 103,400 people in our care. That includes over 53,000 asylum seekers. More than 87,200 asylum seekers have come through our intake system since last spring. We have opened 186 sites, including humanitarian relief centers, 12 of those. Yesterday, we announced two more humanitarian relief centers. And last week, from July 3rd to July 9th, more than 3,100 new asylum seekers entered our care. As you can see from the latest data, this crisis is still very much with us. I know that sometimes, people are seeing lower numbers at the border, but we here in New York City are continuing to see a steady influx of asylum seekers into the city. Let me now turn it to Commissioner Park to say a few words.

Commissioner Molly Wasow Park, Department of Social Services: Thank you. Good afternoon. I'm Molly Wasow Park, commissioner of the New York City Department of Social Services. I'm excited to share more about the important progress we are making, moving New Yorkers from shelter into permanent affordable housing.

We know that strengthening and expanding access to permanent affordable housing, for our low-income communities, is absolutely critical to addressing the citywide challenge of homelessness. As we look to the creation of more deeply affordable housing, our agency has been laser focused on our efforts to increase permanent housing placements from shelter, and doing this more effectively and quickly, by cutting red tape and reducing administrative burdens for shelter residents. And when I say laser focused, I mean it. We are closely tracking progress, looking at what's working, and implementing process improvements in real time.

The wide range of CityFHEPS reforms that were announced last year are already in effect, helping even more New Yorkers get stably housed. And now, thanks to the lifting of the 90-day requirement, we are already connecting hundreds more households in shelter to CityFHEPS vouchers. It's very clear from the metrics that our efforts are headed in the right direction. We have seen a 17 percent increase in overall shelter placements, year over year. We have moved 15,000 households from shelter to permanent housing in FY23 alone. And as the deputy mayor mentioned, we have connected a record number of New Yorkers to permanent housing, using CityFHEPS vouchers, in fiscal year '23.

We are excited to continue building on all this progress, do more of what's working, as we continue to identify and address barriers to accessing permanent affordable housing for our most vulnerable New Yorkers. Because bottom line, DSS is the city's social service agency, but we're also a housing agency. DSS administers rental subsidies for more than 56,000 households, making us effectively the fourth-largest housing authority in the country. DSS continues to implement bold and creative solutions to create housing opportunities for families and individuals. We are using social service dollars to increase affordable housing options through master lease contracts, piloting a housing first model to place unsheltered New Yorkers into apartments, and partnering with HPD on projects to create more deeply affordable housing for low-income New Yorkers.

We are truly leaving no stone unturned. Lastly, I must take every opportunity to thank our incredible DSS, DHS, and provider partner frontline staff, who continue to work around the clock to ensure that our agency is responding to a humanitarian crisis, while effectively addressing homelessness in New York City. Thank you.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Thank you, Commissioner Park. As we talked about yesterday, during the announcement with Mayor Adams on this issue, we can sometimes get lost in these numbers, but these programs are meaningful for our fellow New Yorkers and their families. Earlier this week, I actually had a powerful experience. I was out with some of the New York federal delegation, visiting the Roosevelt Hotel Arrival Center. We showed them up close what the asylum seeker crisis means for our city, for the individuals, and the families, that are coming here seeking asylum, and the real stresses that we face here in 
New York City, financially, spatially, and operationally.

They said that they were proud of what they saw in terms of what New York City is doing. They said they had no idea that so many people were still coming in. They said they were amazed by the staff and the caring and the constant flow, that how people are working 12 hours, 14 hours to get the work done. But they also said that it wasn't fair that New York City should be doing this on its own. They said that it wasn't fair that others were not stepping up, as much as they could, to support this work. We also asked them for their ongoing support and advocacy in Congress, and I think they saw it and understood it in a different way than they had before.

This is a national issue, and we need a national response, including financial support, expedited work authorization, and a decompression strategy. As you all know, in addition to the ongoing efforts to find more locations in the city that can be used to shelter asylum seekers, there have been communities throughout New York state that have welcomed asylum seekers in their communities and really stepped up. 

At recent briefings, we were joined by the mayors of White Plains and Albany, great examples of that spirit and that partnership. I want to give a special acknowledgement to the people of Westchester County, and county executive, George Latimer, for really being a model of support and inclusion, and for welcoming asylum seekers as their neighbors.

It is our hope that if more and more people see the success of these partnerships and see the good work that is being done, that we too together can work, and get more cities and more counties, will really step up their efforts to provide some relief here in New York City. We are at a tipping point. Every day, we are trying to make sure that we have spaces for families and children that are coming in. So many families and children, so many babies, I saw the other day at the Asylum Seeker Center, and I was saying, "I can't imagine what that is like." We need help. We are doing the best that we can, but we need additional support to make sure that the asylum seekers get what they want, which is a chance at the American Dream, a chance to work, and a chance to settle with themselves and their families. With that, I'll take some questions.

Question: Hi. Thanks. I have some data questions. So we have a total, I'm wondering if you can tell us how many people are currently in [inaudible], how many people are in OEM respite centers, and how many of those there are, and how many people are outside of the city in hotels, within those numbers.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Sure. So we do that data once a week, so Kate will get those exact numbers for you, broken down by each... Oh, okay. Yeah, and I think it's been difficult to get there, but now that we have that, we update them weekly, so that would be great.

Question: Perfect. On another note, it was reported over the weekend that the city will stop providing free bus service from Port Authority to Roosevelt.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Yep.

Question: Can you explain a little bit why that decision was made? Are there no longer resources to do it? And then, secondly, I want to ask about a tweet that Fabien put out, actually, about this, where he used the shot, chaser meme format. It's indicating, at least to me, that maybe Fabien, or the administration, believes that migrants are getting more resources than they deserve. I'm just wondering if that's the message that we should take away from this.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So this is the message I want you to take away every time you hear me, which is that I am so proud of the fact that we have welcomed over 84,000 asylum seekers so far into this city, that no one has slept on the street, we are giving folks the support that they need. But Chris, as you can imagine, there are difficult choices that we have to make. And since we know that most of the asylum seekers that are coming into the city right now are actually not coming from buses, so that we decided to move the staff from the Port Authority over to the Roosevelt, there are national guard that are still at Port Authority. And so, we know that, when buses do come in, we felt like folks could make their way over to the Roosevelt. I think it's about a 15-minute walk, I've done it myself. And that once they go there, that's the work that I was talking about, where we have 1,400 people a day still coming there, as we give them mental health support, getting them connected to schools, getting them connected to the support that they need.

So I think that would be the message that I would want New Yorkers to take from this, is that we are doing all that we can to provide those services, and that we sometimes have to make some difficult choices about where those services need to be. Sorry, 87,200 is the amount of asylum seekers that have come into this city since last spring.

Question: So it's about wanting to put that personnel at Roosevelt as opposed to Port Authority, but why can't both continue?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: I think we have to make difficult choices about where we're going to redirect services and supports.

Question: Could I ask the commissioner a question as well, since CityFHEPS have come up a fair amount in the briefing? When the council adopted the legislation that it did recently, Mayor Adams said that the administration believes the council does not have the legal authority to do what the reform package is proposing to do. What are those legal concerns? Why does the admin believe that this is [inaudible]?

Commissioner Park: So let me start with the very significant caveat that I'm not a lawyer and I will defer to the lawyers for the details, but DSS implements rent subsidy programs under the auspices of the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. There's a long history for that level of oversight and that division of responsibilities that does not traditionally include the council.

Question: Deputy mayor, you said that most of the folks who are coming to New York are no longer arriving by a bus. Can you provide the breakdown? So on an average day, X number come, Y come by a bus, meaning bused up from wherever, and then where else are they coming from and what are those numbers?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Yes. So I don't know if I have a breakdown of that, but what we're seeing is that, you remember at the beginning we'd be like, "We're getting eight buses a day, we're getting nine buses a day." We no longer see that, and on some days, we don't get any buses that are coming from south of the border. But we think that people are here, they might be in other parts of the United States, they're hearing about New York City and what they get when they come to New York City. I think even the governor said, people have family that are here now or others that have come up, so that's where people are coming from, from other ports of entry, and from other places, and showing up at the doorstep of the Roosevelt.

Question: If I could just follow up, how did the southern border states, the folks who started doing all this, have they tapered off on sending people by bus?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: It is my understanding that that has slowed down a little bit, and we think that a lot of the folks that we're getting now are coming from other parts of the United States, where other people in other cities are running out of space, but since we have a front door that is open, people are finding themselves here. This is why it's so important for us to have a decompression strategy, and to be able to send people to other parts of the state, or reticket them to where they want to go, because New York City can't obviously take every single person that wants to be here.

Question: What's the breakdown now of households with children, families with children, and also how many kids are currently enrolled in schools? I think back in May, the figure was something like 14,000.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Yep.

Question: And also, what's the city's plan going forward for dealing with children? I know you guys just opened up two new perks, but just families with kids.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Yes. Again, we'll get you the exact numbers, but we're seeing the majority of people that have been coming, and you can talk to this also, commissioner, because every morning, we're talking about what we're seeing, families with children is by far the greatest amount that we're getting. You also know, Bernadette, families with children stay the longest, because it's really difficult to try to move or to find something else if you have two or three little ones.

I'll get you the exact number of how many, at the end of the school year, were enrolled, but that's another big part of what we need to do. I know that there's many places where folks need children in their school system, but we need to make sure that we have the teachers that they need, the support that they need, the mental health support, all of those things the city has been doing, we really need. We're looking forward to the relocation plan that we have with the state, where they're going to be taking some families to other parts of the state, because we think that's going to be great and will provide us some relief in terms of getting families with children settled.

Question: As you said, if these families with children are the ones that stay the longest, I know you guys have mentioned people going to households and having that kind of a partnership. Is that something that you guys have been developing more? What's the long-term plan there?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Yeah, I think we'll get you more information on that. As you know, everything is on the table right now, as we're seeing these numbers that are really incredible, in addition to the normal summer surge that we see. So everything is on the table right now, but I didn't know if you wanted to elaborate, commissioner, on the families with children question.

Commissioner Park: Deputy mayor, I think you said it very well, that the majority of people that we're seeing most days, there's certainly variation, but most days, it's families with children. We are working hard to connect them to services, and ultimately to school enrollment, as appropriate. We are really focused on this collaboration with the state right now to get some families resettled, so that's focused on families that have applied for asylum, and actually connecting them to permanent housing outside the city. We have a number of retail strategies that are going on, there is no one size fits all solution here.

Question: Do you have a number of how many families have applied for settlement?

Commissioner Park: [Inaudible]

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Do you mean applications?

Question: Applications.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: We're going to come, and we'll give you an update on our legal clinic that I think has been up and running, I want to say for 11 days now.

Commissioner Park: Something like that.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: And as it's moving forward, it's going well. We want to ramp it up, because we really want to be able to get as many families as we can upstate, but we'll get those numbers for you.

Question: For Commissioner Park, Mayor Adams entered office with a number of traditional shelters in development, including three on Staten Island. Why have those projects been delayed? Why have they not been set up? And what is the city doing to expedite those developments that could alleviate pressure on the [inaudible]?

Commissioner Park: So there's really no such thing as an off the shelf shelter. Almost everything that we do, particularly in our traditional shelter pipeline, involves a fair amount of construction. That is absolutely true on the Staten Island sites as well, and construction has all kinds of unforeseen circumstances. So we're very focused on those, and there will be openings coming, but there have just been some construction delays.


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