Around 3 a.m. on June 29, buses of asylum seekers originating from Arizona, California, and shelters in New York City, arrived at a city-funded building on Stockton St. and Lewis Ave., which borders the Bushwick and Bed-Stuy neighborhoods of Brooklyn.
For eight days, the roughly 500 asylum seekers, who have been sleeping on cots in the unfinished commercial building, have had no access to showers and sporadic access to air conditioning during some of the hottest days this year. Instead, volunteers helping them have been forced to gather bathing suits and flip flops to meet the requirements of local public pools so asylum seekers can gain access to use the showers there. The asylum seekers and volunteers helping them say they have repeatedly tried to contact city authorities, who have not provided shower access in the building.
Councilmember Chi Ossé, representing District 36, where the facility is located, coordinated the provision of portable showers to the facility, which are useless because they are not connected to a water source, according to members of the non-profit organization, Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), as well as Black and Arab Migrants Solidarity Alliance (BAMSA), which identifies as “an autonomous collective of concerned citizens” in Bushwick, which recently formed to help the men at the shelter.
The asylum seekers arrived at the building last week, just a few hours after June 28, which was Eid al-Adha — or Feast of Sacrifice — which marks the end of Ramadan. “The men were complaining that they couldn’t shower on Eid,” which led to further traumatization that they are experiencing, Diane Enobabor, a lead member of the BAMSA collective said. BAMSA is ensuring that all donations and mutual aid funds meet the specific needs and requests of the asylum seekers, about 115 of whom BAJI says are Muslim and Northern African.
Shower access — an immediate priority for the asylum seekers
The building at Stockton St. and Lewis Ave. is owned by an LLC but is connected to Transition Acquisitions, a property management company. Documented reached out to Transition Acquisitions and the office of Israel Elbogen, the authorized signatory for the LLC, but had not received comments as of this article’s publication. The building is a “respite site,” managed by New York City’s Office of Emergency Management. It is one of many the City manages for the provision of temporary short-term stays to new migrants who are arriving in New York to seek asylum.
There are two toilets on each floor of the building and there is not consistent and accessible running water on all the floors, asylum seekers told Documented. “It is not possible to take a shower there,” a Mauritanian national said. “Right now, we feel itchy in our body because it’s been so long, we didn’t take shower,” another asylum seeker said.
Documented visited the location and saw one portable washroom outside the facility. The washroom was however locked and hooked to no water source.
Following the increase of newly arrived asylum seekers in New York since last summer, the City has been opening emergency locations for them to stay. Some of those locations, called “Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers,” have standard space specifications issued by the City. It requires each facility to provide one toilet per 15 people; one shower per 15 people; and one lavatory per 15 people, among other things.
“The standards that you refer to are the standards that I think everyone agrees are best for these sites,” Joshua Goldfein, a Staff Attorney at the Homeless Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society, told Documented that the City has encountered difficulties in providing shower facilities on the opening day of several designated sites.
“They’re in a race that they are losing right now to open capacity in time to receive people who are arriving every day,” Goldfein said.
He explained that the problem that the City and nonprofit organizations are dealing with is that “as people arrive, the City may not have identified an appropriate facility to offer people shelter in and so they are having to put people in situations that do not meet those standards.”
“But they have arranged for people to take showers in other places where they didn’t have the showers on site. And that included this site,” Goldfein said. Documented’s report highlights a lack of awareness among asylum seekers regarding this arrangement. Goldfein said Legal Aid will ask the City what the status is.
Councilmember Ossé’s communications director, Elijah Fox told Documented that they are aware of the situation. “Our abilities are unfortunately limited to advocacy on behalf of the asylum seekers in the care of the administration,” Fox said.
BAMSA said it also contacted offices of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, City Councilmembers Sandy Nurse, Crystal Hudson, Shahana Hanif, and State Senator Jabari Brisport.
Longtime volunteers of the Bushwick City Farms who only wanted to be identified as “friends” of the farm have been taking the asylum seekers in groups to their homes and letting them shower there. They have also been taking groups to public pools to bathe. James Telfer, a friend of the farm, who’s been volunteering there since 2013, said “the pools are resisting [entry] frequently.”
Public pools require individuals to have specific items before gaining entrance, including a bathing suit, a lock, and flip flops. Volunteers have been buying these items for the asylum seekers so that they can gain access to the pools in groups of five — the maximum number.
Deputy Press Secretary of the Mayor’s office, Kayla Mamelak, told Documented the City is “in the process of providing a more convenient option” for the asylum seekers to be able to shower.
The City’s temporary plan is to have the migrants continue relying on the pool while the provision of functioning showers in the building is in the works.
The immigrants from Mauritania — a Muslim majority country — and other northern African countries complained that it has been impossible to perform their prayer ablutions in the building, given there are no functioning showers or washrooms.
Some neighbors, including friends of the nearby farm, have gathered funds from their EBT cards to provide resources for the migrant men. “We have a very small budget and we’re burning through it,” a friend of the farm who has volunteered there for 12 years said. Using the donated funds, supporters of the farm arranged for the rental of three portable toilets, costing $400 per month, to accommodate the asylum seeker men’s needs. Since last week, the farm has been supporting at least 100 to 115 migrant men daily, a long-time friend of the farm said.
The building spans an entire lot, and is situated in the intersection of two historically Black and Latino neighborhoods. “The community was already under-resourced, was being displaced by hyper-gentrification,” Melissa Johnson, BAJI’s New York City organizer, who has been helping the men, told Documented.
Other immediate needs at the Stockton St. and Lewis Ave. shelter
Around 8 p.m. on Wednesday July 6, a hunger truck — a project of Muslims Giving Back — which BAMSA had coordinated with, arrived near the building’s location. Within five to 10 minutes of the truck’s arrival, about 60 migrant men were in line to receive food from the truck’s organizers. They gave each person a plastic bag filled with cooked halal food, fruit, and a bottle of water.
The men are asking for identification cards, legal assistance, job opportunities, and SIM cards to make phone calls, they told Documented.
“A lot of men … have some cash, they want to do their stuff, they just need translation. They want either the [guidance] to plan for a place or or how to go about [the City] but they want to be more independent,” a long-time friend of the Bushwick City Farm, told Documented.
The need for translation services — Wolof, French, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish and others — are immense at the building on Stockton. The men are mostly Spanish speakers from Central America and the rest are from countries across Africa, including Senegal, Mauritania, Sudan, Angola, Eritrea, Tunisia, Morocco, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others, Johnson told Documented.
One asylum seeker said he escaped domestic violence from his step father in Mauritania. An Eritrean asylum seeker has been in the U.S. for four months, with a hearing in New York City’s Immigration Court set for September 1. He traveled from Eritrea to Sudan, Egypt, then Ecuador. From Ecuador, he crossed through eight countries before getting into the U.S. through California. A Trilingual asylum seeker from Mauritania, in his mid thirties, speaks Arabic, French as well as Brazil and Portugal’s Portuguese dialects. He walked on foot for a period of days through some countries in Central America; cars in some; flew by air in others and then traveled by sea until he got to Mexico where he was imprisoned before he was finally able to seek asylum in the U.S.
July 9, 2023:
Update: A previous version of this article mis-categorized the building as a Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center, administered by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. This article was also updated to include a statement from the Mayor’s office.