By Alex Maroño Porto
Mirella, a Peruvian asylum seeker, came to New York City with her husband and her 11-year-old daughter, Georgina, escaping violence in their home country. They arrived here late one March night and headed to the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) intake center, the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) facility in the Bronx that assigns families to shelters. After filing the paperwork, they were directed to the Belnord Hotel, an emergency shelter for asylum seekers located on West 87th Street, between Amsterdam and Broadway.
“I am with my daughter and my husband is in a room opposite mine, because there was no family room,” Mirella explained in Spanish while being interviewed in front of the Belnord Hotel in late April. Like several other people we spoke to for this story, she declined to give her last name. (The Rag is identifying all those interviewed for this story by their first names only.).
The 131-room Belnord Hotel, which was used as a homeless shelter for single men during the pandemic, opened as a refuge for the city’s “migrant” or “asylum-seeking” population in March of 2023, said Sam Goldsmith, City Councilmember Gale Brewer’s communications director, in an email to the Rag. A DHS source indicated that the Belnord Hotel had simply been “turned over” to house migrants; according to Tripadvisor the Belnord Hotel closed to the public permanently in December 2022.
In March of 2022, Mayor Eric Adams had declared a state of emergency in New York City as a result of the influx of migrants, mostly from South America, into the city’s homeless shelter system. Many of the migrants were bused here after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced his state would send migrants who crossed at the southern U.S. border to New York City as part of a political effort to demand more border security by the federal government. In April 2023, a city official told the Rag that since the mayor’s declaration, over 53,900 migrant asylum seekers arriving in New York had been offered shelter; over 33,900 were then in the city’s care.
According to Mirella, the vast majority of the current residents of the Belnord Hotel are families from Latin American countries. “There are people who recently arrived from Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia. And a few others from Haiti,” she said.” “It’s a family shelter.”
Dayana, an Ecuadorian asylum seeker, agrees. She came to New York after crossing the Texas border with her husband, who got deported. On her way to America, other migrants mentioned the support system the city had to offer, so she decided to come and apply for shelter at the PATH. She had arrived at the Belnord Hotel the previous day, and found it welcoming with attentive staff. “Most of the residents are families,” she said in an interview in Spanish. Standing next to the cobalt blue canopy entrance of the Belnord Hotel, she added that she hopes her own family is reunited soon. “[My husband] is now in Mexico, thank God, and hopes to cross soon.”
Sheltering at the Belnord Hotel comes with restrictions and compromises. Residents have a 10 p.m curfew and, according to Mirella, they are not allowed to enter other residents’ rooms, limiting social interaction. There are no individual kitchens due to the city’s fire codes and, although they receive three meals a day — at six a.m., noon, and six p.m. — the food is “not very nutritious,” said Mirella. “It’s overly processed and frozen. “We have a microwave and a fridge. If we had our own kitchen, it would have been a great asset for us to be able to cook and feed ourselves well.”
Food is also a subject of complaint at the 125-unit Riverside Terrace Residence, a second migrant shelter that opened in the neighborhood last March, on West 88th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.
“It’s fast food,” said a Russian immigrant, who asked to remain completely anonymous. After fleeing from Russia with her husband, daughter, and brother to escape the political crackdown in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they ended up at Riverside Terrace about a month ago. Despite the limitations, she is grateful for her new Upper West Side home. “We were given two rooms and they feed us three times a day,” she said.
Wilson, a Colombian migrant who also arrived about a month ago with his wife and three children, said he was heartened by the toy and clothing donations from the community, which made them feel welcome. “The neighborhood has received us well and treats us with respect,” he said in an interview in Spanish outside the Riverside shelter. “There’s confidence and security.”
That’s a far cry from what some predicted in a New York Post story, when news broke that the Belnord Hotel and Riverside Terrace would be used as city shelters. One UWS resident told the Post “Bottom line is, they are bombarding us….It’s going to be the beginning of a gradual decline of our beautiful, historic, desirable neighborhood.”
When the Rag interviewed several neighbors of the new residents at the Belnord Hotel and Riverside Terrace, they offered more welcoming assessments. Joel, a 35-year resident of the Belnord Hotel (his is one of several families that have lived there for years), describes his new neighbors as polite and quiet. “So far, we haven’t had any problems,” he said in Spanish while standing with his wife, Celina, and Jesús, their son. “They are all family-oriented people with children.”
Jose, a security guard who has worked at the Belnord Hotel for the past three months, also emphasized the newcomers’ integrity and the favorable relationships they have forged with the neighborhood. “There haven’t been any altercations, everything has been good,” he said during a cigarette break.
For an area that has become increasingly unaffordable and progressively less diverse in recent years, the temporary shelters provide a space for new families to become part of the Upper West Side community. “We need an immigrant shelter,” said Ben, a West 87th Street resident of 10 years, standing outside his building, a few feet away from the Belnord Hotel. “This is a difficult neighborhood to come into as a migrant, with a pretty high cost of living.”
Riverside Terrace neighbors echo the opinions of their West 87th Street counterparts. Speaking in front of their five-story building, Kenneth and Carlos, both from Costa Rica, think the Upper West Side has evolved greatly since they arrived. “The neighborhood has become very diverse; historically, it had been very white” said Carlos, who moved to the area in 2008, in an interview in Spanish. “As migrants ourselves, we empathize with them,” added Kenneth.
Zafarou, who has lived in the area his whole life, added, “America is a place where no one is really supposed to be, except for the native Americans. They [the migrants] are obviously good people. They’re here to find a better life.”