They came from Colombia and Chad, from Burundi, Peru, Venezuela, Madagascar. In New York they had heard that there was a haven for immigrants, a place to live and get back on their feet.
When they arrived, they found they had heard wrong.
Two, three, four days later, they were still lined up outside the city’s immigration center at the Roosevelt Hotel, around the corner from Grand Central Terminal – close to 200 people, almost all men. Sleeping on the sidewalk. Heads resting on book bags, garbage bags with belongings at their sides: the visible faces of a system that has officially broken down.
For over a year, record numbers of asylum seekers have arrived in New York from around the globe, nearly doubling the city’s homeless population in one huge spasm: More than 100,000 people now live in shelters across the city.
Unlike other American cities, especially in the West, where thousands live on the streets for lack of other options, New York City is legally required to provide shelter to anyone who asks for it.
But now the shelters are full. As the migrants have continued to arrive, the city has erected tents, cobbled together a large portfolio of hotels and office buildings turned into housing, and given migrants tickets to go elsewhere. It has not been enough. The mayor has called for state and federal help, saying the city is overwhelmed. And officials have also increasingly pushed back against the city’s legal obligations to house the homeless.
Mohammadou Sidiya, 20, from Mauritania in West Africa, was standing next to a friend on Tuesday morning. They had traveled for more than a month to get here.
They came looking for safety, said Mr. Sidiya in Arabic through a digital translation. They failed, he added.
Twenty meters away, a cheerful sign taunted them. “Bienvenidos al arrival center!” it read. “We currently have capacity.”
New York City’s descent from a place that managed to keep up with an incessant flow of asylum seekers to a place that had declared defeat was sudden.
As of last week, there were still enough beds for the city to meet its legal obligation to provide shelter to anyone who wanted it.
Sometime over the weekend that stopped being the case.
No explanation was given. Mayor Eric Adams simply said Monday, “There’s no more room.” He also said: “From this moment on, it’s downhill.”
Josh Goldfein, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, which filed the lawsuit that led to the right to shelter more than 40 years ago, said he believed the people sleeping outside the Roosevelt were there in part because the mayor tried to pressure Washington to send more aid and try to discourage more migrants from coming.
“There’s a lot of ways the city could protect everybody that’s on the sidewalk if that’s what they wanted to do,” he said.
Fabien Levy, a spokesman for the mayor, said Tuesday that the 194 places the city has opened to house asylum seekers are at full capacity.
“Our team is running out of space every single day and we do our best to offer placements where we have space available,” he said. He added that the city is adding two more major humanitarian relief centers in the coming weeks, including a mega-tent big enough for 1,000 people in the parking lot of a state psychiatric hospital in Queens. The city has estimated that the migrants will cost more than $4 billion over two years.
Mr. Levy said Sunday was the first night Roosevelt was unable to offer all migrants a place to stay indoors, even if they were on a chair. He said that some other nights they had been sent to another hotel where they could stay in a cot and that any migrants who slept on the pavement did so by choice. He also noted that migrants had access to air-conditioned buses.
Behind Mr. Sidiya in line was Erick Marcano, a worker from Venezuela. He said he had taken a seat on the line on Saturday and in the following three days had walked a total of one block, from the corner of 46th Street to the corner of 45th. He had used the time to create an effective sun hat by putting a piece of a cardboard box with a skull-shaped hole cut into the brim of his baseball cap.
Mr. Marcano had crossed the border a few days before that and was helped by an immigrant group. “They asked us in Texas where we wanted to go in the United States and that they would pay for the ticket, and we told them we wanted to come here to New York,” he said.
Outside Roosevelt, he said, “they just tell me to be patient and wait.” Down the block, at the entrance to the hotel, families with young children streamed in and out. The city has prioritized providing shelter for them, so that only adults are left outside.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, has chartered some of the buses that have brought people to New York City as a way to put political pressure on Democratic leaders, even though the vast majority of migrants have come by other means.
On Tuesday, the Legal Aid Association threatened to take the city back to court. Mr. Goldfein said Gov. Kathy Hochul also needed to do more to provide resources and help to get people housed quickly.
“We’re hoping that the state will step up and meet its obligations and also that the city will make some changes in what they’re doing to get people off the street,” he said, “but if they don’t, then we’ll need to take appropriate measures to protect our customers.”
A 30-year-old migrant from Chad, who gave only his first name, Abdelkerim, said he was surprised to be forced to sleep on the streets in New York. “I would at least think we would have a place to live,” he said.
The migrants have been provided with food while they wait. On Tuesday, workers with carts went down and handed out egg sandwiches, bottled water, bananas and popcorn. Just past the end of the line was Uncle Paul’s pizzeria. The owner, Dino Redzic, said he had distributed 10 pizzas the night before and let the migrants use his bathroom. “They stay there half an hour and they wash,” he said.
Mr. Redzic, 50, himself a refugee from the Bosnian war who came here 30 years ago, said he was disturbed by the scene unfolding next to his shop. “Why is this happening?” he said. “Where are the churches? Where are the mosques? Where are people going to take care of them?”
As the afternoon progressed, Ariana Diaz, 34, fresh from Venezuela via Baja California, took her place at the back of the line. She had paid for her plane ticket from the West Coast herself and expected a warmer welcome here.
Where was she going to stay tonight, Ms. Diaz was asked.
“I don’t even know where I stand right now,” she said.
Wesley Parnell and Olivia Bensimon contributed with reporting.