migrant crisis

‘They’re Gonna Hang Out in Whole Foods’

Photo: Alex Kent

By 5:45 p.m. on Monday night, the crowd at City Life Church and Academy in Gowanus was overflowing into the lobby. The neighborhood had turned out for a town hall hosted by City Councilmember Shahana Hanif to discuss plans for a shelter for arriving migrants at 130 3rd Street. The proposal had been approved by the Department of Buildings at the end of last year, seemingly to the surprise of everyone in attendance, including Hanif herself. At the top of the meeting, a facilitator asked attendees to “respect each other,” a futile effort at most community meetings, and a subsequent request to “keep in mind the humanity of our new neighbors” was met with robust laughter.

“I learned about it from a neighbor,” Hanif said of the city’s decision to fast-track a 400-bed men’s shelter at the 3rd Street site. “We’re now in March and we’re hearing it might open in April,” she told the assembled crowd. “This is not dictated by me; it’s dictated by all of the various approvals.” Details remain hazy and seemingly in flux: The building, a former brewery, is technically zoned for manufacturing. The contract with Bhrags Home Care, a nonprofit that has won nearly $200 million in shelter contracts with the city since 2022, is “still being worked out,” a representative from the Department of Social Services explained at the meeting. The building’s landlord, David Levitan, has a history of complaints from his other buildings leased to homeless shelters about rat infestations, cockroaches, and rotting floors. (In what The City called an “unusually well timed transaction,” Levitan bought the 3rd Street building six weeks before the city announced it was using the facility as a shelter.) It’s also potentially toxic.

Photo: Alex Kent

A member of the Third Street Block Association, Eric Weingartner, opened the public-comment portion of the meeting by talking about “regulatory and environmental red flags” regarding the shelter’s location, which, like a lot of Gowanus development, including new nearby luxury housing, is near a Superfund site. He said the shelter would “cram over 400 vulnerable humans into a box with no humanity.” But the matter of toxins, which the Third Street Block Association is currently suing over, soon receded from the crowd consciousness. Instead, there were questions like “Would people smelling of alcohol be locked out of the shelter?” “What was the ratio of security guards?” “Who would keep people from smoking on the street?” People shouted “Shut the border” and “They’re illegals.” Another speaker asked about Bhrags’s record of serving spoiled food in its shelters, which shelter residents say has made them sick. She was booed. (“Go back to Sicily!” someone shouted from the back because she had introduced her question by saying her great-grandfather had immigrated.)

This blending of racist vitriol with actual concerns about how sites are set up is pretty much endemic to the public fights over shelter placements. All of which made Hanif feel that the whole situation — the way the Adams administration is handling the migrant crisis in general, the way some people are reacting to how it’s playing out in their neighborhoods — is untenable. The city’s process of identifying possible shelter sites feels opaque and haphazard. The locations themselves are often less than ideal for human habitation and are no replacement for permanent housing: a vacant field in the Rockaways, a repurposed luxury-office space in Clinton Hill that lined people up in cots. People living inside the overtaxed shelter system are desperate for alternatives, even as others line up in hopes of getting inside. We are now two years deep in this particular cycle of dysfunction with seemingly no clear path out of it. “I will protest the administration,” Hanif told me after the meeting, “but I will not protest people having beds.”

Photo: Alex Kent

No one left the meeting happy. “I think we did the best we could to respond to all of the concerns,” Hanif said. “However, the narrative that the newcomers are going to be criminals or are going to be drunk and doing drugs is quite hurtful.” Another resident and member of the Third Street Block Association, Warren Flagg, told me he was frustrated that community members “didn’t have an opportunity to vet it out.” The process had been a mess. But mainly he seemed worried about security and was convinced that the city was only invested in “protecting” the area around the shelter. But what about the rest of the neighborhood? he wondered. “We live a block and a half away,” he said. “And they’re gonna hang out in Whole Foods.”

‘They’re Gonna Hang Out in Whole Foods’