City ‘Channeling Leslie Knope’ to Clear Migrant Waiting Rooms

City ‘Channeling Leslie Knope’ to Clear Migrant Waiting Rooms

Dozens of migrants waited in the cold outside the St. Brigid re-ticketing site in the East Village, Nov. 28, 2023. Credit: Gwynne Hogan/THE CITY

By Gwynne Hogan | February 14, 2024

The Adams administration intends to close by Feb. 26 the five overnight waiting rooms where hundreds of adult migrants have spent nights on the floor or in chairs while waiting for another 30 days in a city shelter, according to an internal memo obtained by THE CITY.

To do that, a city official told staffers she was “channeling Leslie Knope,” the devout public servant played by Amy Poehler in the sitcom Parks and Recreation, to try to “generate concepts and ideas” in order to deny people seeking shelter a cot.

“I apologies [sic] because this is a lot. Channeling Leslie Knope this AM,” Emily Ashton, the senior advisor of asylum seeker operations at the Office of Emergency Management, which runs the overflow sites, wrote staffers on Saturday, Feb. 10.

“Reflecting on ways to reduce overflow sites….Goal from [City Hall] is to reduce occupancy 100% by 2/26.”

The advisor wrote that she is seeking ideas from staffers on how to “improve placement process to help reduce occupancy,” and says City Hall is “open to implementing shorter term solutions and will work with us on resource needs” for the roughly 3,500 people currently waiting for shelter, about 850 of whom spent the night in an overnight waiting room.  Many others ended up in trains, on the streets or in other informal settings.

The policy changes she then lists would give the city broader latitude to deny migrants access to shelters and waiting rooms.

“Self discharge will mean no future placements,” the advisor wrote, meaning if someone leaves their prior shelter cot before their 30 days are up they won’t be able to access city shelters after that, with some exceptions for medical situations.

It’s unclear what policies, if any, had gone into effect since Saturday memo, or if the city still intends to close all the waiting rooms by the last week of February.

The city has already set into action other new policies to restrict access to shelter for those waiting.

One new rule, posted in recent days around the East Village “reticketing” site the city opened in October, which offers migrants who have been evicted from their shelter tickets out of the city before they can apply for a new cot here, that if they turn down that placement they can never seek another one.

“Your rejection of a cot is final,” the sign warns, translated in nine languages.

A sign outside the St. Brigid migrant center states new rules limiting people from reentering the shelter system.
A sign outside the St. Brigid migrant center states new rules limiting people from reentering the shelter system, Feb. 14, 2024. Credit: Gwynne Hogan/THE CITY

Sources said that new rule had been implemented because people had been refusing cots in remotely located shelters like a warehouse by JFK airport, instead opting to stay in waiting rooms hoping for a better placement.

Asked about the memo and the proposed policy shifts, Kayla Mamelak, a spokesperson for Mayor Adams cited a dip in the number of migrants in city shelters, from 69,000 people in early January down to 65,600 by mid-February, as evidence the city’s policies were working.

“The overall migrant population currently in our shelter system continues to dip, despite hundreds of new arrivals arriving every week. This is due in large part to our 30-and-60-day policies – coupled with intensified casework – that encourages asylum seekers to take the next step in their journeys,” she said. “As the migrant population in our care decreases, we are also working to better manage use of our waiting rooms.”

‘Pushing People Out’

The OEM memo shines a light on City Hall’s continued behind-the-scenes efforts to pressure adult migrants to leave shelters. Officials have already restricted their time in shelter to 30 days, sending people to the East village reticketing site. As THE CITY previously reported, few people there have accepted tickets to other locations.

Those awaiting a new shelter placement have waited for more than a week in the cold, with limited access to food, showers or even bathrooms. When the reticketing center closes for the night, some of them have gone to the waiting rooms the city now intends to close.

Attorney Joshua Goldfein of the Legal Aid Society, which has been negotiating with city officials on behalf of the Coalition for the Homeless, said he was alarmed by the internal correspondence.

“We want them to reduce the number of people waiting,” said Goldfein, who has been in regular closed-door conversations with city officials and Judge Gerald Lebovits over the city’s decades-old obligation to provide shelter to anyone who seeks it within the day.

“But we don’t want them to do it by pushing people out in the street.”

A source involved in the city’s operations said the latest directives were directly related to the city’s closed-door negotiations over its right-to-shelter obligations.

“They’re just scrambling to make this thousands number go away,” the source said, referring to the roughly 3,500 people waiting for a new shelter bed.

“They’ve said, ‘We need to be able to show the judge that these overflow sites are empty.’”

Adams spokesperson Mamelak declined to comment on that assertion pointing to the ongoing mediation.

This story was published by THE CITY on February 14, 2024.

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