Eric Adams' blame shifting: Asylum seekers aren't the source of New York City's homelessness crisis

As winter sets in, NYC is likely to see homelessness get even worse. Mayor Eric Adams is blaming migrants

Published November 12, 2023 5:30AM (EST)

New York City Mayor Eric Adams (C) speaks to the media alongside other local and law enforcement officials outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, DC, July 12, 2021. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
New York City Mayor Eric Adams (C) speaks to the media alongside other local and law enforcement officials outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, DC, July 12, 2021. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on Work-Bites

New York City’s dual homelessness and migrant crisis could be poised to get much worse as the Adams administration presses ahead with mid-year austerity measures as federal COVID aid dries up and tax revenues lag.

New York City’s Human Resources Administration has seen a “precipitous drop” in the rate of cash assistance and SNAP [food stamp] benefits applications being processed within the required 30 days, reports the New York City Council Committee on Oversight and Investigations. As a consequence, as winter sets in, tens of thousands of the city’s most vulnerable residents could be at a much greater risk of eviction and homelessness, according to Council Members Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), Diana Ayala (D-Bronx/Manhattan) , and Shekar Krishnan (D-Queens).

At a Nov. 2 hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, Council Members questioned the Adams administration about the recent Mayor’s Management Report which documented a marked decline in everything from how long it takes to re-occupy a vacant New York City Housing Authority apartment to how long the Department of Finance takes to process Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) applications.

“The Independent Budget Office identified many indicators across various city agencies that demonstrate the City’s struggles to adequately maintain its buildings and infrastructure, and deliver services to New York City residents,” testified Louisa Chafee, Director of the New York City Independent Budget Office. 

Chafee continued. “The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) reported substantial timing increases in several of its critical indicators, attributing the delays to an increase in demand with no comparable increase in staffing to address specialized areas. Most notably, the average times to prepare vacant apartments and to turn them around more than doubled from 2022, with both metrics reaching over 365 days.”

IBO said HRA’s processing of cash assistance applications within the required 30 days had dropped “down to 29 percent of all applications from 82 percent one year ago (though the definition of timeliness was 45 days at that time). Regardless, the decline has real-world impacts on how quickly applicants receive cash assistance and is also the subject of a Legal Aid and New York Legal Assistance Group lawsuit in progress against the City. There were also sizable changes in processing supplemental food assistance (SNAP) benefits within 30 days: the metric has declined to just under 40 percent of all applications from 60 percent one year ago and 92 percent two years ago.”

Council Member Gale Brewer, chair of the Committee Oversight and Investigations, told Work-Bites after her hearing that she was seriously concerned about the marked deterioration of the city’s completion rate of public works as well as the processing of welfare benefits by HRA that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers rely upon to survive. 

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“That’s why I kept raising the issue of the 26,000 application backlog for cash assistance—my God—that’s not a ‘should we go to a play tonight?’—that’s a lifeline,” Brewer said. A couple of times during the hearing Brewer asked HRA officials to confirm both the actual and budgeted headcount for their agency but never got an answer. “They were asked twice and its been asked at a previous hearing and they don’t have it so we are following up with a letter,” Brewer told Work-Bites. 

The chair of the oversight panel pressed NYCHA officials for an explanation why thousands of public housing units remained vacant for many months at a time. “It’s hard for the public to understand” that there are thousands of vacant public housing units “when we have all these people who need homes,” Brewer observed during the hearing.  

Eva Trimble, New York City Housing Authority, Chief Operating Office conceded her agency had 4,900 vacant units but explained that it took four to six months just to perform the necessary lead and asbestos abatement necessary to get the units back online.

In addition to Trimble, Jill Berry, Human Resources Administration, First Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Social Services; Jeff Shear, Department of Finance, First Deputy Commissioner; and Eric Macfarlane, Department of Design and Construction, First Deputy Commissioner; also testified on behalf of the Adams administration. 

Krishnan, who has extensive experience as a housing attorney, told the administration panel the existing massive backlog in welfare assistance would have a cascading impact on struggling parents with children who will find themselves stuck in ”Housing Court taking off days from work in a traumatic eviction case that should have never been brought in the first place.”

“As housing becomes more and more difficult to obtain in the City of New York—we are building less and less affordable housing, it’s imperative that we do whatever we can to make sure  people are not displaced unnecessarily,” Ayala said during the hearing.

The Council panel heard testimony from the administration that their agencies were still having trouble filling a wide array of key civil service titles ranging from tax auditors to architects and engineers as a consequence of post-pandemic attrition.

The vacancies persist as the same agencies are being ordered to make five percent across the board budget cuts by Mayor Adams who maintains the reductions are necessary due to a multi-billion dollar hole blown  in the city’s budget by the ongoing migrant crisis, slowing tax revenues and the end of federal COVID aid.

“Since the large influx of asylum seekers to our city began last spring, we have warned New Yorkers that every city service could be impacted by this crisis if we did not get the support we needed,” Adams wrote back in September when he announced the round of budget cuts. At the time, the administration estimated it was scrambling to handle 10,000 asylum seekers a month and that the ongoing influx  would require the city to spend $12 billion through the end of FY 2025.

The Council’s review of the imploding performance metrics follows the Adams administration asking the courts to release it from the terms of 1981 consent decree that granted the homeless a ‘right to shelter’. In its court filings, the city asked to be relieved of the legal obligation due to an influx of undocumented migrants that it maintains have overwhelmed the city’s shelter system that’s gone from housing 45,000 people a night in April of 2022, to over 116,700 as of October — a 159 percent increase.

Anthony Wells is president of DC 37’s SSEU Local 371 which represents 20,000 city social service workers at HRA and in just about  every other mayoral agency as well as NYCHA and the  Health + Hospitals Corporation.

Wells told Work-Bites the city faced an “unprecedented” convergence of formidable challenges—a pre-existing homelessness and mental health crisis compounded by the unfettered influx of undocumented migrants. At HRA, Wells said the agency initially had “thousands of vacancies” after the pandemic but was “trying to catch up by looking at adapting eligibility requirements” to consider applicants with only “a high school diploma and some experience in customer service.” 

Wells expressed concern about the 125,000 social service workers that are employed  by non-profits that have contracts with the City of New York to care for the homeless and migrants but are paid so little they often qualify for some form of welfare benefits themselves.

“For the unionized workforce DC 37 we are getting contracts that address the needs of our members but we need to organize more of the non-profits so those workers are not having to collect food stamps,” Wells told Work-Bites. “We are definitely concerned  and that’s why DC 37 is working on organizing in the non-profit sector so hopefully that will change.”

Dan Kroop, president of the Association of Legislatives Employees, the union that represents hundreds of City Council Members staff members, says his members who handle constituent services know first-hand just how daunting the city’s social service system can be.

“The key thing is when these systems fail it ends up making its way to Council Members offices and the expertise that the aides have is key in terms of helping constituents navigate the problem,” Kroop told Work-Bites. “But then there is the difference made when the Council Member’s staffer reaches out to the agency’s intergovernmental affairs office and says, ‘What’s going on with Mrs. Smith’s SNAP application’ and that can unstick the bureaucratic morass—our members can get somebody on the line to really understand the problem and then translate all of that back to the person involved.”

The day after Election Day,  Mayor Eric Adams tried to reset the news media narrative that his administration was reeling from the early morning Nov. 2 FBI raid of the Brooklyn home of his top campaign fund-raiser Brianna Suggs, 25, by holding a Blue Room media availability with his top staff.

Adams decision to hastily return from Washington D.C  before the start of a high profile meeting that same day with the White House on the nation’s immigration crisis was seen as a panicked response to what the New York Times reported was a criminal probe “focusing on whether the mayor’s campaign conspired with the Turkish government to receive illegal foreign donations.”

At the Nov. 8 press conference Adams insisted that his campaign had scrupulously complied with campaign finance law and that his snap decision to return home was a manifestation of his hands-on management style.

“I had a 25-year-old staffer that I saw grow up as an intern that had a traumatizing 

experience in her life,” Adams told reporters. “There was a professional part of maintaining my staff and my city but I think sometimes we miss the fact that there is a human part to life. As a human being I was concerned about a young 25-year-old staffer that went through a traumatic experience and although I am the mayor, I have not stopped being a man and a human.”

Yet,  Adams told reporters that he did not speak with Suggs the day of the raid  because he “did not want to give any appearance of interference.”

He did say he was not going to SOMOS, the annual political retreat in San Juan, Puerto Rico convened by New York State Legislature’s Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force.

“I told all my team members if they go, they have to pay their own way to go because we are dealing with a serious fiscal crisis in the city beyond our imagination and me using taxpayer dollars right now is not the best thing to do and I made the determination that I am going to remain here,” Adams told reporters. “We still have to produce the November plan that is a few days away and some of these cuts are just frightening. It is going to break our hearts.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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Commentary Eric Adams Homelessness Migrant Crisis New York City