New York City’s shelter system has been overwhelmed with new arrivals, but advocates for the homeless say the idea is insulting.
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As New York struggles to find housing for a wave of migrants, Mayor Eric Adams is seriously considering housing them on cruise ships — a proposal that homeless advocates have called insulting and alienating.
Mr. Adams defended the idea on Monday and said the city was looking for “creative ways” to address a “humanitarian crisis.” He said the city would make an announcement once the plans were finalized.
“We’re not going to leave any stone unturned,” he told reporters on Monday. The Adams administration has been working behind the scenes on the plan to use cruise ships — an idea that former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg considered in 2002 when he struggled to respond to a homelessness crisis, and that advocates for the homeless opposed at the time.
The mayor’s chief of staff, Frank Carone, has spoken with leaders of Norwegian Cruise Line, a major cruise ship company, to discuss the possibility of housing asylum seekers on one of its ships, according to someone familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. Mr. Carone stayed on one of the company’s cruise ships in Normandy, France, last month, as part of the administration’s research, the person said.
Mr. Adams grew irritated on Monday over questions about Mr. Carone’s travels and refused to answer questions about them at a news conference. A spokesman for the mayor, Maxwell Young, later added that no taxpayer money was used for the trip.
Mr. Adams, a Democrat, met with Norwegian Cruise Line’s chief executive, Frank Del Rio, on June 12 on East 57th Street in Manhattan, according to the mayor’s detailed schedules, which were recently released through a Freedom of Information request by The New York Times.
At the time, the city had just begun to see an uptick in migrants. The city has said that more than 11,000 people have arrived from the border since May, many sent on buses by Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas. Although many have a place to go, the population of the city’s main shelter system has jumped by 22 percent since mid-May, to 56,000, an increase of 10,000 in four months. The shelter population grew by nearly 2,000 just in the past week.
Thousands of migrants, most of them Venezuelans, have been coaxed onto buses and planes heading to Washington, New York, Chicago and even Martha’s Vineyard after making a perilous journey to the border. Mr. Adams has publicly quarreled with Mr. Abbott, criticizing his approach as inhumane and arguing that the governor’s to coordinate with cities was making it more difficult to address their needs.
Mr. Adams announced on Monday that a young female migrant died by suicide in a shelter on Sunday. The mayor called her death a tragedy and said the city would continue to offer mental health services to migrants. He said the city could not provide further information about the woman or the details of her death.
On Friday, Mr. Adams mentioned the idea of using cruise ships to house migrants for the first time in an interview with Marcia Kramer on WCBS-TV.
“We’re examining everything, from the legality of using any type of cruise ship for temporary housing,” he said. “We’re looking at everything to see how do we deal with this.”
Mr. Adams noted that the Bloomberg administration had considered the idea of putting homeless families on a cruise ship in 2002, when New York City’s shelter system had a smaller population of 36,000 people. The Bloomberg administration abandoned the idea after receiving criticism.
“If you think about a cruise ship, it’s exactly what you need,” Mr. Bloomberg said at the time. “Rooms with bathrooms that are safe, that we can afford, in a neighborhood we can use.”
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Deborah Diamant, the director of legal affairs for the Coalition for the Homeless, said that the cruise ship idea was insulting and raised concerns over providing people access to transportation, food and schools. She said it was part of a campaign by Mr. Adams, who has cleared encampments, to try to make the homeless crisis less visible.
“He’s been pushing people to the margins, and he’s been pushing people out of sight,” she said. “We’re pushing them so far here on to cruise ships — off the land and onto the water.”
Ms. Diamant said she was concerned about whether cruise ships would be accessible and safe, noting that they were known as places where the coronavirus had spread quickly.
“It just seems absurd that the city would consider cruise ships once again as a solution to the homelessness crisis,” she said. “We know what the solution is — it’s permanent affordable housing.”
Craig Hughes, a senior social worker with the Urban Justice Center, said the city should speed up the timeline for moving people out of shelters instead of placing homeless people in cruise ships. Noting that the average length of stay in shelters has increased significantly over recent years, he said, “Empty the shelters and you have more room to house people that need shelter that are coming in through the front doors.”
Fabien Levy, a spokesman for Mr. Adams, said that the city had “no details to share at this time” regarding the use of cruise ships to house migrants.
“We said earlier this week that we need to reassess the whole situation, and that is why we’re discussing different ideas to see if they work,” Mr. Levy said in a statement. “This idea is part of that reassessment.”
Mr. Levy added that the mayor’s meeting with Mr. Del Rio in June “had nothing to do with asylum seekers.”
Mr. Adams said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that he was not considering abandoning the city’s “right to shelter” law, which guarantees shelter for anyone who asks for it, but he said that New York must reassess how it carries out the law.
“We don’t believe we should change the right-to-shelter law,” he said. “What needs to be looked at is the actual practices.”
The mayor received criticism last week for raising doubts about the city’s commitment to the right-to-shelter law. The mayor said New York was facing a “breaking point” and criticized Mr. Abbott for failing to coordinate bus arrivals with the city.
A representative for Norwegian Cruise Line did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
City officials have opened 23 emergency shelters to handle the influx of migrants. But the city recently failed to offer beds to 60 migrants who arrived at the center on East 30th Street in Manhattan where homeless men are assessed when they first enter the shelter system — the first major such lapse in over a decade.
The city has previously turned to its waterways to deal with overcrowding. In 1989, when a steep increase in drug arrests filled the Rikers Island jail complex, the city used a converted British troopship as a prison barge to house inmates and docked it in the Bay Ridge neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Another floating jail barge, the Vernon C. Bain Center, is docked just north of Rikers Island. It opened in 1992 as a temporary solution and never closed.
Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute who has written a history of homelessness in America, said that on a recent visit to Rikers Island, he was told by a Department of Correction press officer that the Bain Center had fewer problems than many of the complex’s land-based buildings. He said that he thought this made the idea of a cruise ship shelter “somewhat promising,” though he added, “Needless to say when you’re talking about Rikers, you’re grading on a curve.”
In 2002, Mr. Bloomberg was criticized for placing homeless families in a former jail. He refused to move them, even in the face of a political storm.
That year, Mr. Bloomberg’s commissioner of homeless services, Linda I. Gibbs, toured luxury cruise liners off the Bahamas. She said at the time that the liners could be a good option for housing homeless people, but she was concerned about the cost of converting them to meet the needs of the homeless population.
“We would have to remove bars and discos, which are inappropriate for a shelter,” she said.
Grace Ashford contributed reporting.