Adams Administration Shelter Policy Disproportionately Evicts African Migrants

Migrants from Mauritania and Senegal were the most likely to receive eviction notices, but not the most populous groups in shelters, a New York Focus analysis found.

Churchill Ndonwie   ·   February 15, 2024
A woman in a purple dress and a black head covering opens a door to show a sunny world outside.
Adama Bah, founder of Afrikana, opens her doors to migrants who need help navigating the immigration and shelter systems. | Marco Postigo Storel

Sokhona Khassa had heard that New York City would take him in. A migrant from Mauritania, Khassa, 29, had traversed Central America to arrive at the southern border of the United States, where fellow migrants told him he would fare better in New York. When he got there, he was disappointed.

“The staff treated us badly,” said Khassa, in French, of his time in a city shelter. “When they pass us, they cover their nose. It’s like you’re dirty or something.”

In July 2023, the same month Khassa arrived in New York City, Mayor Eric Adams capped migrants’ shelter stays at 60 days. Khassa got his first notice in August. In September, Adams reduced the shelter limit to 30 days for single adults.

In a first-of-its-kind analysis, New York Focus found that notices to vacate shelters have been disproportionately served to migrants from Mauritania and Senegal. Out of 14,000 notices, migrants from the two African countries received 44 and 32 percent, respectively — the highest and second-highest share. In population data provided to New York Focus, the countries accounted for fewer migrants in city shelters than Venezuela, Ecuador, or Colombia. (The city provided data over a year ending in October 2023, but it was not broken down monthly.)

Churchill Ndonwie
Churchill Ndonwie

Left: Proportion of migrants served eviction notices per country of origin between July and October 2023. Right: Total population by nationality between September 2022 and October 2023.

The disparity appears partly to be a product of the policy’s design. At first, the city only served notices to single adults, who make up 90 percent of the Senegalese and Mauritanian shelter populations. Because of the increased distance and cost of the journey, migrants from Africa are more likely to travel alone than those from South and Central America, resulting in unequal outcomes.

“The African population has always been a concern of ours,” Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, told New York Focus. He said his group worried “that they would be left out in the wind in this moment.”

The Adams administration put a 60-day limit on migrants' shelter stays last July. In September, the administration reduced the limit to 30 days for single adults.

New York Focus analyzed 14,000 shelter notices served between July and October 2023, obtained via FOIL request to the NYC Office of Emergency Management.

The eviction notices have continued since then. As of December, the city had issued nearly 36,000 notices.

For a picture of the shelter population, New York Focus analyzed data for 94,000 asylum seekers collected between September 2022 and October 2023, but not broken down by month. During that period, the top countries of origin were Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Mauritania, and Senegal.

Now, some state legislators are seeking to reverse the Adams administration policy. On Monday, state Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal and Assemblymember Catalina Cruz introduced legislation to make the 30- and 60-day shelter limits illegal.

“The 30- and 60-day notice requirements are arbitrary and inhumane. There is very little confidence from my community that this process is being managed in a way that is fair,” Hoylman-Sigal told New York Focus. “This information confirms that suspicion.”

Reached for comment, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs referred New York Focus to the administration’s press office, which did not respond to multiple inquiries.

Some of the African migrants who spoke to New York Focus said that they had received 60-day assignments to new shelters, but less than 60 days in, they received another notice saying their time was up. Others said they were notified that their 60-day stays should have been just 30 in the first place.

When staff in a Brooklyn shelter told Khassa his 60 days were up, he pushed back, he said, because he had been there for only a month. He recalled that the staff told him: “It’s been two months. I’m not early.”

The constant moving around made it harder for Khassa to learn English. He had to switch schools. And it exacerbated another issue African migrants face when they’re disproportionately kicked out of shelters: The absence of existing diasporic communities to join.

“There hasn’t really been any real investment in getting them the support that they need to integrate quicker,” Awawdeh said. Compared to longer-running immigrant communities from South and Central America, recent waves of migration from Africa have bolstered a population that is newer to the city overall.

Because of language barriers, they have a harder time communicating with caseworkers. Senegalese and Mauritanian migrants primarily speak Wolof, Pulaar, and Arabic — less commonly known among shelter workers than English or Spanish.

“Language access is truly the center” of the problem, said Diane Enobabor, founder of the Black and Arab Migrant Solidarity Alliance, leading “to people not being aware of the time they have in the shelter system.” Enobabor, a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center studying African migration, gathered data from migrants who visited BAMSA and other organizations like Afrikana in Harlem. She found that 72 percent of those who visited the sites for help were Mauritanians and Senegalese who spoke different dialects of Arabic, Pulaar, and Wolof.

In an October 2023 meeting with the mayor’s office, Enobabor’s group and other organizations assisting African migrants stressed the need for better services for the populations they represent. The administration acknowledged the issues but failed to take action, Enobabor said.

Some migrants from African countries — like Cameroon, Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan — qualify for Temporary Protected Status, a federal designation granting eligibility for work permits to migrants from countries deemed sufficiently dangerous by the Department of Homeland Security. City initiatives like the Asylum Application Help Center and the Asylum Seeker Legal Assistance Network, which help migrants complete their asylum applications, have prioritized TPS designees. Mauritanian and Senegalese migrants don’t make the list.

A woman in a purple dress and a black head covering examines bins of US mail.
Adama Bah goes through the mail at Afrikana, which offers migrants a place to receive mail, on February 14, 2024. | Marco Postigo Storel

Organizations serving African migrants have had to expand their services to fill the case management gap. According to Adama Bah, founder of Afrikana, the 30-day limit policy has left hundreds of African migrants sleeping on the streets. She described the scene at one current intake center, in the old St. Brigid school building in Manhattan.

“After the night time, when St. Brigid closes, these men are on their own; they’re on the streets,” Bah said. She said that Afrikana, which helps migrants with logistical needs like asylum paperwork, has been staying open late to provide migrants with a warm space at night, but many end up sleeping in trains and houses of worship.

When Sall, a 36-year-old from Mauritania, was kicked out of his shelter after 60 days, he found himself sleeping outside. Other migrants, he said, would collect bottles for the five-cent deposit at night “so that in the morning they can find something to eat.” Soon, he joined them.

Sall, whose full name is withheld to avoid affecting his immigration case, eventually heard of a church offering migrants a place to stay overnight. They would be given an orange, a protein bar, and a water bottle. They just had to be out by 6 am.

A line of migrants waiting outside a church on a block in New York City.
Migrants line up outside the intake center at St. Brigid on February 10, 2024. | Marco Postigo Storel

Most of the discussion of displaced New York City migrants has focused on single men, who are served the majority of notices to vacate shelters. But single women are caught in the same system. Of the 14,000 notices New York Focus analyzed, nearly 2,000 were served to women.

“Nobody’s gonna talk about them, because they feel like they don’t see them,” said Bah. She said she has struggled to provide items culturally appropriate for many African women — things as simple as a menstrual pad.

“Everyone’s offering them tampons,” Bah said. “We don’t use tampons in our culture.”

Bah said that when the women sleep on the streets, they are sometimes mistaken for sex workers, misled with offers to help, and sexually assaulted.

Houleymatou Barry, a 21-year-old migrant from Guinea, is one of the 400 women who arrive at Afrikana each month seeking help finding placement in a shelter. When she first got to New York — after being detained for four days at the southern US border — the city’s intake system had assigned her to a 30-day stay at the shelter on Randalls Island.

“I was cold. I had no clothes,” said Barry. She had fled her home country after being forced into a marriage with an older man, she said. She wanted to become a doctor in the US, and schools in Manhattan were offering GED classes, a first step, but Randalls Island was too far to get to them.

“I told myself I can’t live here, since I have to study, because the goal is always in my head,” Barry said. She chose to live on the streets, because it would put her closer to her GED classes, until another migrant told her about the case management services at Afrikana.

Bah was able to find Barry a placement at a shelter in Manhattan, but she was served a notice to leave in 60 days. Barry worries that all the moving around will impact her education, which is her top priority.

“I’d like to save women’s lives, children’s lives,” Barry said.

A woman in a purple dress and a black head covering opens a gate.
Adama Bah gives a tour of Afrikana's facilities on February 14, 2024. | Marco Postigo Storel

Governor Kathy Hochul’s executive budget, released last month, proposes to allocate $2.4 billion to provide support for migrants in New York City, including shelter, legal services, and case management. A bill sponsored by Cruz in the Assembly and Hoylman-Sigal in the Senate would establish the right to legal counsel in immigration court and provide additional funding for legal services for immigrants, adding $100 million to what is included in the executive budget. The New York Immigration Coalition, Awawdeh’s group, supports the move — and wants to make sure it goes far enough.

“This is a statewide issue, not just a New York City issue,” said Awawdeh. “Making sure that everyone has access to immigration and legal services is a top priority of ours.”

Case managers from the city Department of Homeless Services sometimes reach out to organizations like Afrikana to help manage the asylum application process, but many advocates say it’s not enough. According to Ruth Messinger, a former Manhattan borough president, the city hasn’t sufficiently tapped its available resources for help.

The current eviction regime is an inefficient and counterproductive use of city resources and staff, Messinger argued. She’s currently urging City Hall to pair private funders such as the Robin Hood Foundation, New York Community Trust, and the UJA-Federation with community-based organizations like Afrikana. This would allow the latter to scale their efforts on case management and applications for asylum and work permits.

“If you want to encourage people to do planning, then you would put skilled caseworkers into each shelter,” Messinger said.

For now, many African migrants are still in the cold, waiting in line for a shelter placement. Khassa decided to move to Philadelphia to live with a friend who had space. Sall found an apartment in Brooklyn with some other African migrants, after spending days sleeping at the church.

Barry is now in a Bronx shelter — with a 30-day notice. She doesn’t know if she’ll be assigned to another shelter or end up on the street.

“Every time I face difficult things like that, I tell myself it will pass,” Barry said. “It’s not going to stay like that.” To keep up her motivation, she wrote a note to herself on her phone: “You are going to become a doctor.”

Churchill Ndonwie is a reporter with Columbia Journalism Investigations, where he reports on immigration for the Global Migration Project. He covers immigration and healthcare.
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