NEW YORK – On a recent Wednesday morning, Jhonny Ramos stepped out into the 40-degree chill of midtown Manhattan, a bevy of concerns weighing in on him.
He hadn’t found consistent paying jobs. With his immigration status up in the air, he didn’t have work authorization.
He needed to rush to the subway to get to a Western Union store in another borough, but the stitches from his recent appendectomy pulled at his skin, reminding him to walk slower so they don’t reopen.
Then he needed to make it back to the shelter in time so as not to miss his next meal.
Most pressing, though: He needed to find a decent pair of pants. Ramos had only a pair of shorts and winter in New York was coming.
The next day, seven miles away in the south Bronx, Ariadna Phillips slammed shut the tailgate of her Kia Sorrento. Soon, she would be helping children find shoes that fit and their parents a place to sleep.
Her car was crammed with boxes of donated clothes, shoes, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, apples and loaves of bread. Her phone was filled with WhatsApp contacts. Every migrant she met, she added to several group chats on the social media site, which fill with new questions each morning about how to survive in a new city.
In New York, Ramos and Phillips are on opposite ends of an immigration pipeline that began on the border with a bus ride.
For much of 2022, long-haul bus rides have been orchestrated by Republican governors as a kind of political theater: divert asylums seekers out of their states and into liberal coastal cities.
For many of the riders, though, that theater becomes a difficult reality: They step onto the buses with the promise of a new life in a new city and step off instantly homeless.
Since June, more than 20,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in New York City on buses from Texas and Arizona. Other buses have ferried migrants to Washington and Chicago.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis joined the fray briefly in September when he authorized flights of asylum-seekers from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, sparking widespread outcry.
Officials in Texas and Florida maintain that they only transport migrants who choose to reach those destinations. But after the buses roll away, asylum-seekers are left to navigate a foreign city without speaking the language, find a place to live with no relatives or sponsors to help them and feed themselves with no work lined up.
The result, in New York, means that thousands of those migrants end up in the city’s homeless shelter system, already strained near capacity with thousands of New Yorkers who had lost jobs and homes during the coronavirus pandemic and a decades-old housing crisis, advocates said.
As of Oct. 24, more than 63,000 people crowded the city’s homeless shelter system – a new historic high. Last month, Mayor Eric Adams declared a state of emergency to deal with the crisis and directed workers to erect large temporary tents to handle the overflow.
Murad Awawdeh, head of the New York Immigration Coalition, said it’s the largest influx of migrants to the city he’s seen in his two decades working with asylum-seekers.
“We quickly realized folks were showing up hungry, with nothing and in need of actual support,” he said.
For volunteers like Phillips, assisting this new crush of homeless New Yorkers has become a second full-time job. Delivering food and supplies to spots across town fills her weeknights; each morning her phone is full of new requests.
For Ramos, a Venezuelan asylum-seeker, the bus ride to the East Coast has not led to the American dream he envisioned.
In the four months since arriving in New York City, he has been shuttled between three homeless shelters, fought off hunger and homelessness and struggled to earn a few dollars doing odd jobs.
“I thought life here would be different, would be better,” Ramos said. “My dream has come true – the American dream – but lately it’s been more of a terror.”
Political theater vs. daily survival
The busing of migrants promises to be on the minds of voters as they head to the polls during midterm elections next week. In a national survey taken by the Pew Research Center in August, 48% of registered voters said immigration was a “very important” issue in the upcoming midterms, beating out climate change (40%) and the coronavirus outbreak (28%) as key topics.
For thousands of migrants in newfound homelessness on the East Coast, the situation is less about politics and more about survival. Many migrants have struggled inside the New York shelter system, especially after what is often a traumatic journey of leaving their country and traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border, advocates said. In September, a migrant mom died of suicide while at a city shelter.
Ramos has acquired tricks to navigate the city day to day. He uses the free Wi-Fi hotspot at the subway station on 57th Street to send messages via WhatsApp on his smartphone to his mom and sister in Venezuela. He’s learned to navigate the city’s subway lines and stops through the smartphone’s map app. If he has a few bucks for a subway pass, he’ll buy one. If he doesn’t – which is often – he patiently waits for a passenger to exit through the steel gate and slips past the turnstile.
Ramos is staying at the Park Savoy Hotel on West 58th Street, a 9-story hotel converted into a city homeless shelter, a block away from Central Park and just around the corner from One57, the 75-story tower where in 2014 Dell Technologies founder Michael Dell set a Manhattan record by purchasing a $100-million condo.
On the cold, Wednesday morning, Ramos needed to get to Brooklyn. He had been to a Western Union there earlier to send some of the little money he had made – $50 – to his sister in Venezuela. But the money hadn’t arrived. Now he needed to get to an office to persuade an agent to resend it.
He pulled up the train directions on his phone – take the “C” train 16 stops to the Franklin Avenue station – and checked his watch. He needed to be back at the shelter by noon for his free lunch. Probably a flimsy ham and cheese sandwich, but it’d be the only food he’d have until evening.
“I’ve missed so many meals,” Ramos said, striding toward the subway station. “I can’t do it again.”
Bringing relief to migrants
Ariadna Phillips drove away from her job at a Bronx middle school, where she teaches English as a new language and computer science, and went directly to La Morada Mexican restaurant on Willis Avenue in the South Bronx. There, she wolfed down a quick dinner of sopa de nopales (cactus soup) with rice and tortillas, then loaded boxes of donated clothes, shoes, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, apples and loaves of bread into her Sorrento.
A family of recently-arrived Venezuelans wandered into the restaurant and picked through the boxes stacked by the front entrance, looking for shoes for their 9-year-old daughter. Phillips bent down on one knee and helped the girl pull on a pair of pink high-tops.
“Ok, in the United States, your shoe size is 4-1/2,” she told her. The girl smiled shyly.
For years, La Morada has been the epicenter of migrant advocacy in the Bronx (red letters painted on the front door declare, “REFUGEES WELCOME”), and boxes of donated goods crowd the front entrance. Since asylum-seekers from Texas and Arizona began arriving in the city, it’s been at the forefront of helping them get enough clothes and food. Phillips, head of the South Bronx Mutual Aid, has been a driving force of that effort.
Each day, after working eight hours as a public school teacher, Phillips, 41, begins her second job as a volunteer in the middle of New York City’s migrant crisis. She checks one of several WhatsApp chats on her phone for updates from migrants around the city, then loads up goods at La Morada and visits shelters where the migrants are staying, alerting them via WhatsApp of their arrival time.
After loading her car, Phillips decided which of the various shelters she and other volunteers will visit first. On some nights, her WhatsApp channels chime repeatedly with news of migrants fleeing a shelter, and she and others scramble to find them alternative housing.
“They’ve been assaulted, they’ve been robbed, they’ve been kicked out of the shelter at all hours of the night or refused a bed,” Phillips said. “We do rapid response to intercept those people, especially if they’re facing a life threat at the particular shelter they’re at.”
The convoy pulled away from La Morada. Phillips checked her phone. 6:12 p.m. It was going to be a long night.
Volunteer groups play key role in migrant crisis
New York City has welcomed migrants for centuries, including unexpected, large influxes, such as in 2014-2015, when more than 15,000 unaccompanied migrant minors arrived in the city, said Awawdeh, the coalition director.
Two key differences are that the federal government closely coordinated that influx and nearly all those youth then had someone waiting for them in the city – an uncle, grandparent or cousin – and willing to take them in, he said. Today’s migrants often arrive with no sponsors or community connections, Awawdeh said. Like Ramos, they end up in the shelters.
As asylum-seekers continue pouring into New York City, straining the city’s ability to deal with them, volunteer groups such as Phillips’ have been vital in ensuring migrants find a place to sleep, something to eat and have other basic needs met, he said. Other groups, such as Artists-Athletes-Activists, have also helped in the migrant crisis.
“They’ve been doing a lot of amazing work,” Awawdeh said. “They’ve been stepping up, providing people with food, clothes, providing them with shelter or connecting with them alternative housing.”
If a migrant gets kicked out of or feels threatened and leaves a city shelter, organizers scramble to find the person a “sanctuary space” – often a room in a church, a cot in the backroom of a business or someone’s living room couch.
The federal government’s lack of involvement in the current crisis has been keenly felt, said Shahana Hanif, a New York City council member who chairs the Immigration Committee. Unlike past migrant influxes, the current crisis has been handled mostly by New York City, she said.
“We need city, state and federal to be coordinating,” Hanif said. “The city alone cannot shoulder this moment.”
A family murder and fleeing Venezuela
After exiting the Franklin Avenue station in Brooklyn, Ramos walked six blocks to the Western Union check cashing store on Bedford Avenue.
Recently-arrived migrants, mostly from Venezuela, wandered in and out of the small store, sending chunks of small paydays back to relatives in Latin America. The store was just down the street from a men’s shelter populated by migrants.
Orlando Sanchez, 32, was sending $90 to his wife and daughters in Venezuela. Ten days earlier, he had accepted a bus ride from the Texas-Mexico border to New York, not knowing at the time exactly where the bus was headed, he said. After arriving in New York, he found a job with a painting crew that pays him even though he lacks work authorization. He was saving most of his money to buy professional shears and resume his job as a barber.
“You need to have faith in God,” Sanchez said. “He’ll show you the way.”
After some hand gestures and pointing at receipts, Ramos was able to explain to the woman at the counter that the money he had sent to his sister last week wasn’t received because they had misspelled her name. The woman corrected the name and resent the $50.
Ramos remembered when he was recently arrived like the other migrants in the shop, when steady jobs and opportunity still felt within reach. The journey to the U.S. was so long and arduous it’s taken on the hazy contours of a bad dream.
Ramos is from Maracay, Venezuela. His father was a high voltage worker for the country’s electrical corporation, known as Corpoelec. He would work with his father on job sites or take on shifts at the local McDonald’s. Ramos’s passion was baseball and he played third base and outfield for an amateur baseball team. His dream was to follow in the footsteps of his older cousin, Johan, who was courted by the Cincinnati Reds. But a motorcycle accident when he was 22 years old permanently damaged Ramos’s foot and ended his playing career.
Ramos was content to keep working with this dad and provide for his family. Then, one day that same year, thieves mugged and killed his father in his car as he drove home from work.
As the economy spiraled and the streets became ever more dangerous, Venezuela seemed like a dead end. Six years ago, he and his brother, Fernando Ramos, 27, decided the only way to support their families was to go abroad. First they lived in Colombia, earning meager livings as carpenters, but when the economy there also floundered, they decided to give the United States a shot. Friends had told them of plentiful job opportunities and how President Joe Biden was friendlier to immigrants than his predecessor, Ramos said. They decided to go to New York – a city they had seen and admired in the Spider-Man movies, he said. Earlier this year, they set out to the U.S.
Ramos and his brother crossed the jungles of Colombia and Panama, spending six days stepping over bodies and sleeping in the bush in the Darién Pass, a notorious jungle trail connecting the two countries. He witnessed women sexually assaulted by criminal gangs and those who resisted were shot, Ramos said.
“It was horrible,” he said. “Like a nightmare.”
Out of the jungle and out of money, Ramos and his brother panhandled on the streets across Mexico, landing in and out of Mexican detention facilities, until finally reaching the U.S.-Mexico border in July. Everything was left in the jungle – clothes, toiletries, etc. – to be able to move quicker through it, he said.
They crossed the Rio Grande into Del Rio, Texas, on July 13th, penniless but hopeful.
“It took us 27 days to get here to the United States,” Ramos said. “We got here skinny, dehydrated. But we made it, that was the important thing.”
Ramos and his brother were picked up and processed by U.S. Border Patrol. They were questioned by agents and released into the U.S. pending an immigration court hearing that could grant them asylum status and a work permit.
When officials offered them free bus rides to Washington, D.C., they accepted, he said. Washington, they reasoned, was much closer to New York than South Texas.
Word had spread among migrants that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was shuttling migrants away from the border as a political statement. The brothers took the bus rides anyway.
“At first, I was hesitant, I felt almost scared,” Ramos said. “I didn’t know where to go exactly. But we had lost any fear years ago when we left our country … We decided to get on that bus and put ourselves in the hands of God.”
‘We’re your neighbors’
Phillips and the other volunteers pulled up at the homeless shelter – a hotel turned city shelter – on West 46th Street, a block east of Times Square, at around 6:40 p.m. Migrants streamed out of the hotel and began picking through sweaters, fleece blankets and snacks inside the boxes. Just down the street, jumbotron screens flashed ads for Sephora and Coca-Cola and the Lion King musical. Tourists swerved around the huddle of migrants massed on the sidewalk, filling outstretched shirts with peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and apples.
“Hi, I’m Ariadna,” Phillips told them in Spanish, as she ushered more migrants to the back of a pickup truck holding clothes and loaves of bread. “We’re your neighbors.”
One woman needed antibiotics for an upper respiratory infection. Another said she didn’t feel safe at the shelter. Phillips jotted down their phone numbers and entered them into her WhatsApp chat. Anything you need, you let us know there, she instructed. The women nodded.
“People said in New York there was all this opportunity,” said Angelica Barrades, an asylum-seeker from Caracas, Venezuela, staying at the shelter with her two daughters, ages 8 and 10. “But it’s been difficult. Very difficult.”
Born to a U.S. military dad and a mother of Mexican indigenous roots, Phillips grew up in Florid and settled into the Bronx after earning graduate degrees from Fordham University and Queens College and spent much of her adult life advocating for migrants and underserved communities.
During the coronavirus pandemic, as New York emerged as its U.S. epicenter, Phillips and her sister delivered food and supplies to first responders in the COVID-19 wards of hospitals.
Around that time, after a video conference call with organizers and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who encouraged the group to create “mutual aid” groups to help neighborhoods through the troubled times, Phillips launched the South Bronx Mutual Aid, a collective of various organizers and migrants helping one another. The group is one of dozens that are part of a larger collective focused on serving vulnerable populations, she said.
“The right thing to do is step in and help your neighbor,” Phillips said. “If we all did that, we’d be a lot better off.”
When migrant buses began arriving in New York in early August, Phillips, who speaks fluent Spanish, found her days consumed by helping asylum-seekers wandering New York’s boroughs or struggling in the shelter system, she said.
The WhatsApp chats she began in August today has more than 270 participants that include organizers and migrants, all sharing information and responding to requests. By noon each day, dozens of messages pile up in the chat, ranging from someone asking for HIV medication to migrants in need of a ride to their immigration hearing.
Phillips and others in the collective don’t just bring relief to migrants. They also push the city to focus on bringing permanent solutions to the homeless problem rather than erecting more temporary housing, she said. When Mayor Adams ordered temporary tents erected at Orchard Beach in the Bronx last month, Phillips videotaped the area around the tents flooding during rainstorms and posted the videos on several social media sites.
Days later, the Adams administration announced it was moving the temporary tents to Randall’s Island in Manhattan.
“It’s not enough to just be the Band-Aid. That’s what charity is,” Phillips said. “We’re asking, ‘Why is this this way?’ and ‘Why can’t it be another way?’”
Another way of provoking change is to teach the asylum-seekers they’re helping of their rights as immigrants in the U.S. and encourage them to organize and advocate for themselves, Phillips said. Migrants help monitor the WhatsApp channels for signs of duress, volunteer at La Morada or even speak at area schools, giving students a firsthand account of their journey to the U.S.
“Mutual aid is not charity,” Philips said. “We all take care of each other.”
Daily hunger and an emergency operation
A church group took in Ramos and his brother in Washington and the pair spent two days there before travel arrangements were made to take them to New York. He remembered marveling at the gleaming buildings of Manhattan, as the bus drove over a bridge and dropped them off at the edge of the city. From there, they walked for over an hour until they reached the main intake shelter at 400 East 30th Street.
The next day, they were transferred to the Atlantic Armory Shelter on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn – a 19th century former military outpost designed to look like a castle. Migrants call it “El Castillo.”
Ramos found a few odd jobs helping someone move or on a demolition crew, earning $150 one day, $300 another. Most of it went back to family in Venezuela. But he couldn’t find steady work.
Last month, Ramos was transferred to a homeless shelter in the Bronx. Here, he said staff members were rude and few, if any, spoke Spanish. He said the cafeteria worker would pile extra food on the plates of others at the shelter but he and other Venezuelans got smaller portions and only one carton of milk, instead of three. He felt like he never had enough to eat.
In the third-floor dormitory – a large open hall crammed with 50 beds, side by side – Ramos witnessed residents smoking dope or downing pints of booze, he said.
A spokesman with the New York City Department of Social Services, which runs the shelters, said the agency has “channels/avenues” for clients to report any misconduct at their facilities and officials investigate each report thoroughly. All their sites have round-the-clock security, seven days a week.
“We do not tolerate any misconduct against or among clients,” the spokesman said in a statement. “A secure and safe environment is critical to the success of any DSS-DHS program facility.”
Someone at the shelter gave Ramos a phone number to a mental health counselor. He spent 2-1/2 hours on a text chat with a counselor, recounting all the recent struggles in his life – from the jungles of Panama to the streets of the Bronx. Another resident gave Ramos Phillips’ name and phone number and he was soon on her WhatsApp group. Ramos sent out appeals for help and Phillips responded by bringing him a quart of chicken soup from La Morada.
“If it weren’t for her, I would’ve starved to death in that shelter,” he said.
One day in mid-October, Ramos ate the shelter’s undercooked lasagna and soon started feeling violently ill. Cold shivers ran through him and he vomited blood. An ambulance rushed him to a Mount Sinai hospital in Queens, where doctors performed an emergency appendectomy.
Two days later, after repeated emails on his behalf from Phillips, Ramos was awoken late one night and reunited with his brother at the midtown shelter at the Park Savoy Hotel. His room at the Park Savory is small and bare, with a single twin bed, a small steel locker and a window. But it’s his alone, along with his own bathroom. His brother’s room is across the hall. When he got to his new room, he collapsed to the floor and cried.
“It felt like I had been released from prison,” he said, referring to the Bronx shelter.
That night, for the first time in months, Ramos slept soundlessly through the night.
‘You’re going to give us a lot more voters’
Ramos said his life has markedly improved since being transferred to the Park Savoy shelter. His meals are good portions and the staff is friendlier. The wounds from his appendectomy have healed enough that he’s walking the streets and reaching out to contacts, looking for work.
Though life is still tougher than he anticipated, he said he relishes in the excitement and perks of living in New York City, such as walking down Broadway and soaking in the bustle of the city, or the kindness of New Yorkers who stop to help if he gets turned around at a subway stop.
“My first challenge is to get better, to help my mother … and to find opportunities we never had in our country,” Ramos said. “And to keep going forward with God’s help.”
Like other migrants assisted by the South Bronx Mutual Aid, Ramos has also pledged to help wherever needed. On the night Phillips drove from one shelter to the next around Manhattan, Ramos joined her to help hand out donated goods or answer migrants’ questions.
At around 8 p.m., he and Phillips drove to the intake shelter on East 30th Street – where Ramos spent his first night in New York City three months earlier. Asylum-seekers squatted on the curb outside the shelter and peered into their smartphones. Other, U.S.-born shelter residents mingled nearby. The smell of weed wafted through the night air.
Ramos pulled his hoody over his cap against the night chill and handed out apples and loaves of bread, as Phillips chatted with migrants. One young couple from Venezuela had arrived to New York just hours earlier. They wanted to stay together but were told the 30th Street was only for men.
Phillips got their personal information and, using her smartphone, registered them in the city system as a couple, then walked them into the shelter to make sure they got in. She added them to her WhatsApp chats. Ramos took questions from another couple and pointed them to Phillips.
After more than an hour, Phillips and Ramos packed away what was left of the donated goods and readied to leave. The night had been a good one.
Asylum-seekers like Ramos are special because, having gone through the system, they know the pitfalls and could help other migrants, Phillips said. She plans to continue training them to self-organize and advocate for themselves, she said.
The more asylum-seekers southern states send them, the brighter the spotlight grows on New York’s strained housing situation and the migrants’ plight, Phillips said. That attention could lead to more volunteers and, ultimately, more people calling for change at the voting booth.
“What you’re doing is you’re just growing mutual aids,” Phillips said. “You’re going to grow the outrage around lack of social services and, eventually, you’re going to give us a lot more voters.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.