For Families at Floyd Bennett Field, Getting Used to the Cold is the Hardest Part


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Gwynne Hogan, The City

This article was originally published on by THE CITY

A huddle of families clustered on the damp corner of Avenue U and Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn waiting for the B3 bus to arrive in the frigid drizzle Tuesday afternoon. One man wearing nothing but a t-shirt clutched his toddler, his bare arms goose-pimpled in the rain. Others had on flip flops and socks as it started to rain.

The group of recently arrived migrant families were headed from the tent shelter at Floyd Bennett Field to a Salvation Army five miles away on Nostrand Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, each armed with $25 vouchers and a goal: amass a wardrobe that would help them cope with the coldest temperatures they’d ever experienced. 

Many who spoke with THE CITY said in the few nights they’d spent at Floyd Bennett, they’d dreaded having to leave the heated tents where hundreds sleep to use the bathroom or shower, which are located in trailers outdoors. But even indoors, despite the tent’s heating systems,the cold was hard to avoid, they said. 

Family sleeping pods were lined up in a giant tent at Floyd Bennett Field.

City officials gave a tour of a family shelter at the federally owned Floyd Bennett Field, Oct. 30, 2023. Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The babies shiver at night, the cold is really strong. We’ve never been through anything like this,” said Jean Pierre Julian, 33, a Peruvian father of five. He described how he and his wife surrendered their sheets and slept without blankets in order to cloak their five children with another layer of warmth. “It’s what we have to go through. We’re migrants. We’re not from this country, we can’t ask for much,” though he added, “the babies are suffering.”

Kayla Mamelek, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams, said as outdoor temperatures dipped below freezing Monday, shelter managers had increased the temperatures to 75 degrees inside the tents and provided warmer blankets as well as additional heating systems. Mamelek said Zach Iscol, the commissioner of the Office of Emergency Management, slept over Tuesday night to assure it was warm enough. But migrants who spoke to THE CITY say their tent is drafty, with cold blasts that make it difficult for the children to sleep. 

“We’re thankful that they give us food. We’re also thankful that they’re very good with the kids,” said Jose Gonzalez, 31, in Spanish. “But it’s cold inside, not for us but for the kids.”

The tented shelters they’re staying at Floyd Bennett field opened to families last week. While some families initially refused to stay in the remote encampment, the tents are now housing around 300 people, according to City Hall, with a capacity for as many as 2,000. 

While the city has opened up several tent shelters for adult migrants over the past year, it’s the first time the city has placed homeless families with children in a group shelter instead of private rooms for any extended period of time since the 1980s. The sprawling tents are subdivided with opaque dividers so each family has a door they can lock and some measure of privacy, though the walls only extend around seven feet high, leaving their rooms exposed to chilly drafts and the sounds of their neighbors around them. 

Migrant Jean Pierre Julian found warm winter clothes at a Salvation Army in Sheepshead Bay.

Migrant Jean Pierre Julian found warm winter clothes at a Salvation Army near the Floyd Bennett Field family shelter, Nov. 21, 2023. Photo by Gwynne Hogan/THE CITY

“It’s better than an open gym. People do have a door that they can lock,” said Joshua Goldfein, an attorney The Legal Aid Society. “But when we were there, there were gaps between the walls. I think people are going to be very concerned about privacy. There is still a real risk of communicable disease spreading.”

For those who’ve arrived at Floyd Bennett, their first days in New York City are drastically different from how they’d imagined they’d be, after a grueling months-long journey across the continent. 

“We’d heard there were hotels, that we would be treated differently. We didn’t know we were going to be sent there, withdrawn from the city. We’re out there, totally isolated,” said 34-year-old Katherine Julio, in Spanish. “With the cold, it’s very difficult.”

A National Challenge

As an unprecedented number of people have crossed the U.S. border seeking asylum, cities all across the country have struggled to figure out how to house the new arrivals, with limited support from the federal government. 

In Chicago, where around 20,000 migrants are staying, families spent weeks living outside in tents and bedded down inside police precincts. In Massachusetts, migrants are sleeping in airplane lobbies and hospital waiting rooms as the state capped the number of families it would care for at 7,500.

New York City has thus avoided that level of desperation, with more than 14,000 migrant families with children in its network of hotel shelters, plus another 1,600 adult families and 14,000 single adults, a total of around 65,000 migrants, according to a city tally through the end of October. 

As the number of migrants in city’s care has ballooned, officials have ramped up efforts to get them to leave shelters, setting 30-day limits on how long adults can stay in shelter beds before they’re sent to request another cot. The city began issuing 60-day warnings to migrant families with children for the first time last month and has since handed out 2,200 of them, the first of which are set to expire in the days after Christmas. City and state officials have also helped thousands of migrants apply for work authorization, asylum and Temporary Protected Status.

The city has already spent $1.45 billion to accommodate the new arrivals with food, housing, and medical care. This week Adams ordered city agencies to reduce spending on migrants by $2.1 billion going forward, the Daily News reported. At the same time Adams has ordered 5% budget reductions across city agencies, while blaming migrants. Fiscal watchdogs maintain that housing migrants is just one piece of the city’s complex fiscal pressures, which also involve the end of federal pandemic stimulus money as well as recently settled labor contracts. 

Mayor Eric Adams defended the city’s handling of the situation at a Tuesday press briefing.

“The first most important layer is not to have children and families sleeping on the street. That has been my number one concern,” he said. 

For families now living at the Floyd Bennett Field, leaving the remote shelter, tucked into a vast expanse of wetland five miles from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Marine Park, is an ordeal in itself. The city runs shuttle buses every 90 minutes ferrying families along Flatbush Avenue to bus and subway lines miles away. Several said their children were already enrolled in schools, without yellow busing. Parents are left to navigate the shuttle schedule to commute to adjacent bus lines in order to drop off their children and pick them up.

On Tuesday afternoon, the small brigade of families made their way from the charter bus to await the B3 which would take them another 20 minutes away to the nearest Salvation Army on Nostrand Avenue. Once there, they spent the better part of two hours sifting through used items, trying on boots and winter jackets, their children scurrying through the store’s aisles giggling.

“I don’t even have underwear,” said Julio, who was trying to find staples for herself and her two teenage boys. “I haven’t been able to find anything for him and he starts school tomorrow,” she said, gesturing at her 13-year-old son. 

Jaile Escalón, 24, took a break from shopping to breastfeed her 1-year-old. 

“At least we have a roof over our heads, and something to eat,” she said in Spanish. “They treat us well and they’re nice to us. But it’s cold in the tent.”

César Mina, 48, came looking for warm clothing for his daughter, who had stayed behind at the shelter with his wife. He found a pair of rainbow-colored ski pants he hoped would keep her warm.

“In my country I was used to certain comforts but I understand I have to start from zero here,” he said in Spanish. “I know they’re helping us a lot, there’s medicine, they’re helping us with our documents which is the most important part.”

Still he said he was perplexed at what they would do when their 60 days at the shelter ran out, with his work permit at least four months away.

“To get papers takes more than two months,” he said. “I don’t know what the decisions the administrators of the shelter are going to make. If we don’t have work permits, how can we work and get situated here and pay rent here?” 

Others said they’d made it to the U.S. with warmer clothes, which authorities had confiscated when they’d crossed the border.

“We came with jackets, but they took away everything we were only allowed to cross with a t-shirt, shorts and sandals,” said Julian. “It’s pretty harsh. But those are the laws of this country. You have to respect it.”

It was his daughter’s Carol’s ninth birthday Tuesday. The bright-eyed girl with long, dark hair and bangs said she was eager to start school the next day.

“My dad says I’m going to learn four languages,” she said adding, math was her favorite subject in school. Though she said living at the tent, thus far, had been challenging.

 “It’s a little uncomfortable, there’s a lot of wind,” she said.

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