The city shelter where a Colombian asylum seeker committed suicide over the weekend has been inconsistent in providing essential resources for the Spanish-speaking migrants being placed there, according to interviews with several residents at the family facility in Hollis, Queens.
Several Spanish-speaking homeless families at the Queens shelter said they were placed there after arriving at the PATH DHS Assessment Shelter in the Bronx. Since arriving at the Hollis site, they’ve relied on a telephone translation service and translation apps to communicate with staff and social workers, according to interviews with three recent migrant residents who live in the facility.
“They call a number and a translator answers, and he's the one who helps us have conversations,” said one Venezuelan migrant woman who recently arrived at the facility and asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing housing. In Spanish, she told Gothamist she hadn’t been connected to an in-person Spanish social worker or interpreter in the five months she’s lived there.
For daily interactions, asylum seekers housed at the facility told Gothamist they have to rely on translation apps on phones to communicate with shelter staff, residents said.
“It’s very complicated having conversations with them. We use our cell phones, but sometimes, the words aren’t right,” said Laura, a Colombian migrant who only shared her first name for fear of being identified by others who may know her. She said she recently moved into the shelter with her husband and two children.
“It’s not very good trying to communicate with them,” she added.
Asylum seekers at the shelter who spoke to Gothamist described how isolated and lonely they feel at the facility, where they’re discouraged from talking to one another by staff, leaving them to congregate in a parking lot across the street and making them feel like ”prisoners.”
Residents said they suffered from feelings of loneliness in the shelter because of the strict enforcement of a rule that keeps them from speaking to each other within the building. They also told Gothamist that they often have to cross the street to a nearby park in order to socialize with one another.
“We’re not allowed to have social lives here. Each person goes in and goes straight to their room. It’s very uncomfortable, all the pressure we’re under, and we can’t have a friend to share it with,” Laura said. “Sometimes you need someone to chat with, ask how you’re doing, why are you down, and there, you can’t do that. You’re left in solitude, locked in your room.”
In a statement, a Department of Social Services spokesperson said its staffers were trained to “lead with care and compassion” when working to address the specific needs of those who utilize the system.
“As part of our legal and moral obligation to provide shelter to anyone who needs it regardless of background or immigration status, we are working around the clock to ensure that we are providing shelter supports for recently arrived asylum seekers, continuing to open emergency sites, and working to comprehensively address the unique needs of asylum seekers,” the spokesperson said.
Residents who spoke with Gothamist on Tuesday said that social workers check on them periodically to document their progress, but some lamented that they haven’t been connected to any specific city resources beyond physical shelter.
Navigating the shelter system – and its limitations on mingling with others – while raising kids has been difficult for families, another migrant mother from Venezuela, who wished to remain anonymous, told Gothamist on Tuesday. That’s especially true for single moms, who haven’t been connected to child care services and are unable to rely on each other due to the shelter’s strict rules.
“We just got here, and the idea is to make connections, not to be locked inside and have to cross the street to have a conversation,” the mother said. “You can’t count on your neighbors for anything, so it drives you to solitude, you can’t connect with anyone. You can’t ask your neighbors for favors.”
For her part, the mother said she was connected with an in-person Spanish-speaking worker once in the three months since arriving at the shelter. However, she added, the presence of a Spanish-speaking staffer has been largely absent.
As for the shelter itself, the residents interviewed by Gothamist said the facility was clean, and they were still grateful to have a roof over their heads.
On Monday, Mayor Eric Adams announced that a “young mother” committed suicide over the weekend, and pointed to moves from Republican governors, who have been sending buses filled with migrants seeking asylum to Democrat-controlled northern cities.
Adams was adamant that her death was not a failure of the city, which has seen an influx of asylum seekers over the last few months.
“We didn't fail in this city. This city is helping people,” Adams said Monday.
The mayor added that 11,600 asylum seekers had arrived in the city since the spring, with roughly 8,500 of them staying in city shelters.
City officials have not released much information about the woman and did not say whether she arrived in New York City on one of the buses sent from states with hard-line immigration policies.
NBC New York on Monday night reported that the woman arrived from Colombia in May with her 15-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, who were staying with her at the family shelter.