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Covenant For New York’s Newest New Yorkers Offers Faith-Based Plan For Saving City Money While Providing Compassion, Care For Asylum Seekers In Need Of Shelter, Services

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Covenant On Behalf Of New York’s Newest New Yorkers Offers Hope For Solving The Owner Migrant Crisis –  At A Lower Cost Than Private Hotels Turned Shelters

by Rev. Dr. Chloe Breyer, ED, The Interfaith Center of New York

In October, I joined Staten Island faith leaders at a press conference to support migrants who were being intimidated and harassed outside the now-shuttered St. John Villa Academy shelter. We set up on the sidewalk across the street from the former school to offer Baptist, Episcopalian, Muslim, Jewish, and Lutheran prayers and statements.

Shortly after we began, counter-demonstrators showed up on the other side of the street, and they began drowning us out.

“Why don’t you take them back to your house?” yelled one woman.

“They aren’t legal,” shouted another.

“Bring them to YOUR neighborhood!” shouted a third person.

As a clergy person and the long-time director of the Interfaith Center of New York, I can say that these expressions of antipathy, while legal and within the rights of those who hold them, don’t reflect the courage and hospitality that Christians—or practitioners of any other major faith tradition–are called to, particularly at this time of year.

Most of our faith traditions teach the intrinsic value of each person regardless of national origin. The Hebrew Bible is filled with stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs crossing borders–Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Ruth, and Moses to name a few.

Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan to help a curious young lawyer understand that his “neighbor” is anyone who is in need.

Muslims recall that Mohammed described himself as an immigrant, and taught the centrality of compassion, hospitality, and justice in Islam.

The fear and suspicion of migrants shown by the counter-protestors at our Staten Island press conference was disappointing, but it’s not surprising—and certainly not unique.

At a public hearing on the Upper West Side a couple of months ago, for example, I heard complaint after complaint about the “safety problems” posed by bicycle delivery men. From the perspective of my elderly parishioners, fear of stepping off the sidewalk is real.

The fact that most online delivery workers are recent migrants is also true.If you listen to the way certain elected officials have talked about migrants over the past many months, you can see where these naysayers get encouragement for their NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitudes about migrants.

When our Mayor, for example, says that the current migrant crisis will “destroy New York,” it’s important to take his words with a massive dose of salt, and to remember that, as a city, we have been here before.

That is correct. As a city, we have been here before.

Neither the waves of immigration, nor the panic and resistance that comes with it, are new in New York’s history.

In 1907, for example, at the height of immigration through Ellis Island, 5-10,000 people a day were processed.

These new arrivals were mostly Irish, Russian, and Northern European. “No Irish Need Apply” signs prevalent at the turn of the century were proof that the forebearers of the sign wavers also encountered fear and discrimination, which, eventually, was overcome.

Why should faith-based centers in all five boroughs shelter migrants?

It’s one thing to accept new arrivals to your neighborhood; it’s another to provide them with the shelter, food, jobs, and education they need. Why should houses of worship in every borough join nonprofits and government in sheltering and supporting new migrants?

A growing number of faith leaders, lay activists, and volunteers believe strongly that this work of welcoming the strangers should be shared across boroughs and sectors.

Knowing that no sector alone will be able to provide the welcome needed to house, clothe, feed, and educate these newest New Yorkers, the Interfaith Center of New York and the New York State Council of Churches, with over 400 faith leaders and activists, created a Covenant on Behalf of New York’s newest New Yorkers to call on city and state institutions to rise to the challenge of welcoming the more than 60,000 people who have newly arrived and settled in New York City.

We used the concept of a “covenant”—based on the biblical examples of a sacred promise between God and God’s people (specifically, Abraham, Moses, and Noah) that required both sides to hold up the promise.

This is true of faith communities, along with city, state, and federal government, nonprofit organizations, philanthropy, and the private sector. We need each other while addressing this great challenge.

This holiday season, our Covenant on Behalf of New York’s Newest New Yorkers calls on all our institutions to rise to the challenge of welcoming the 135,000 people who are passing through, and the thousands who call NYC home, as well as their families, along with government—city, state, and federal—nonprofits, private sector, and faith-based communities – all are needed to make the Covenant a reality.

Over the past year and a half, New York City has struggled to find shelter for the new arrivals, leading to dire situations of congregate settings for families,  for example, out in Floyd Bennet Field, that not only makes it difficult to find work, but also disrupts school for children.

The Adams Administration is seeking to end the right to shelter, which would only exacerbate the ongoing crisis, and force more people onto the street.

Since last summer, the New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS) and the Interfaith Center of New York have partnered with the City to allow up to 50 houses of worship or faith-based spaces to offer overnight shelter for single adult men at each location.

The city reimburses houses of worship that embark on this program, to the tune of $75 per night, per person — a bargain compared to the over $300 per night currently spent on reimbursing commercial hotels.

This program is currently underway, and provides 19- and 15-bed shelters for migrants, thanks to the collaboration with the FDNY.

House of Worship provide migrants with a hot meal, a place to store their belongings, and some access to social services.

It has provided a cost-effective opportunity to give asylum-seekers a warm place to sleep through the coldest months of the year.

As part of this proposal, faith leaders have already identified over 200 potential facilities to host faith-based shelters.

Any institution interested in taking part in this program is encouraged to fill out the form hereNow we are calling on the City to work with more faith-based organizations eager to support our most vulnerable neighbors, whether their families have been here for three days or three generations.

The service agencies that span denominations and faith traditions, from Catholic Charities to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and Lutheran Social Services, are all invited to the table as well. The faith-based emergency shelter program is not a substitute for the city and state building more affordable and social housing, fixing NYCHA, improving the shelter system, and expanding the successful Housing Voucher Access Program to include both citizens and non-citizens.

Earlier this week—at the end of Hanukkah and the culmination of the Advent season leading up to Christmas–diverse faith leaders came together for a press conference at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Manhattan, calling on the City of New York to approve a plan to expand the number of faith beds for migrants from 1,000 to 5,000 beds at houses of worship.

We were inspired by the Covenant on Behalf of New York’s Newest New Yorkers that calls on all the City’s institutions – government, nonprofits, private sector, and faith-based communities in all five Boroughs – to rise to the challenge of welcoming the 135,000 people who are passing through, the more than 60,000 who call this city home, and their families.

Staten Island houses of worship are invited to join those in other boroughs, and take part in this effort.The faith-based shelter program is now expanding to up to 5,000 more beds.

Under the plan, hundreds more houses of worship and other faith-based locations will serve as overnight shelters for 9 to 14 adult male asylum seekers each night, providing a warm, safe space to sleep and referrals for services.

Each shelter will be staffed with a coordinator, volunteers, and a security guard. The faith-based shelters will contract directly with the city at a rate of $74 per person per day — compared to the $383 per night the City currently pays for emergency hotels.

The $311 per person per night savings, multiplied across the 5,000 asylum seekers who would be served in this plan amounts to potential savings of $1.5 million per day or $547.5 million annually.

In addition, the funds that the city does spend would go to organizations that serve New York’s communities, rather than for-profit companies that only focus on their bottom line.

Faith leaders and advocates have been in active conversation with the FDNY on this plan, and believe limiting faith-based shelters to 14 or fewer beds will allow the facilities to comply with fire codes by employing in-person fire wardens, rather than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on fire suppression systems. This program is projected to save the City an estimated $547.5 million over the next year.

Any institution interested in taking part in this program is encouraged to fill out a form here.

Banner Image : Church reflection. Image Credit – Justin Snyder Photo


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Rev. Breyer has served as the Director of the Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY) www.interfaithcenter.org since 2007. During the past decade and a half, ICNY has developed a pioneering curriculum in civics training for grassroots religious leaders, built multi-faith advocacy coalitions preventing bias crimes, and promoted criminal justice and immigration reform. In education, ICNY leads religious diversity training modules for teachers, social workers, law students, and law enforcement officers. In the years following 9/11, ICNY advocated against unwarranted surveillance of mosques, and for the restoration of guidelines that safeguard the civil rights and religious freedom of all New Yorkers. An Episcopal Priest in the Diocese of New York, Breyer has served at Harlem churches for more than two decades, including as Associate Priest at St. Philip’s Church since 2012.