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Major cities are struggling to house large numbers of migrant refugees

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Officials in major cities continue to struggle to find ways to house thousands of migrant refugees. Many of them are seeking asylum, and many of them have been bussed from the country's southern border by the governor of Texas. Big city mayors say they need a lot more help, from the federal government specifically, to provide housing and other services. Three reporters from around the country join us now to talk about how their cities are working to assist the swell of newcomers. And we're going to start in New York City with Liz Kim of WNYC. Hey, Liz.

LIZ KIM, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: So New York has received the largest influx of buses from Texas, and Mayor Eric Adams initially welcomed them. But as this has gone on and continued, he has shifted his view. He's now going as far as to call this a crisis that may destroy New York. So what is the city's current plan to get through the winter?

KIM: To understand how the city has been addressing the crisis, we should start out with New York City's unique legal obligations when it comes to the homeless. The city has what's called a right-to-shelter rule, and it applies to anyone who needs a place to sleep indoors. So what the city has done from the beginning is they have found those spaces. It's rented hotels. They've outfitted municipal and even private buildings, and they've also built massive tents.

Currently, we have around 65,000 migrants in the city's shelter system. Migrants now make up more than half of the city's total residents in the shelter system. But what's happened now is that the mandate is becoming a draw for migrants, and that's on top of many reasons why immigrants want to come to New York City - the main ones being the fact that it's a large global city with good transportation and jobs. Now, New York is a sanctuary city, and it offers a safety net for undocumented residents, and the mayor has been proud of that. He initially welcomed migrants, as you said. He stood in front of Port Authority Bus Terminal, and he personally greeted migrants as they were coming off the bus.

DETROW: I mean, Liz, it is interesting how much Adams has shifted on this. Was there a particular moment you can point to when he went from being welcoming to saying, this is untenable and the city can't handle this anymore?

KIM: It was when he realized that this was not just a temporary wave of new people coming into the city who needed housing and education. So now he and taxpayers are confronted with how much this obligation to house and take care of migrants is going to cost the city. The mayor has said that it could cost as much as $2 billion this year.

DETROW: So let's shift to Chicago and Tessa Weinberg from WBEZ in Chicago. Tessa, it seems like it's fair to say this has been a little bit of a different situation in Chicago - right? - that the city has really been struggling and overwhelmed in its attempts to try and find housing for people.

TESSA WEINBERG, BYLINE: Yes, definitely. We are out of space for folks here in Chicago.

DETROW: And Mayor Brandon Johnson has been trying to put forward this plan to create winterized tent camps for the coming months, but that's been pretty contentious, hasn't it?

WEINBERG: Yes, it has been. They've been controversial, and we've not seen a single base camp actually constructed yet. But Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson's administration has said the city has few options to really try and quickly house people before winter sets in. The city has pitched these so-called base camps. They would look like large tent-like structures that could house thousands of people with the goal of moving people out of police station lobbies and into these new camps.

In Chicago, we've had more than 20,000 migrants and asylum-seekers arrive since August of last year, and we just simply do not have enough space in city shelters for everyone. There are more than 12,000 migrants in city shelters, and another 3,000 have been sleeping on the floors of police station lobbies and O'Hare Airport because the city simply does not have enough room. But even deciding on where these base camps should be located has led to fierce protests. It's already snowed in Chicago here, too, and here's what Mayor Brandon Johnson had to say recently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRANDON JOHNSON: It snowed, but winter is not here yet, and so my goal is still to make sure that we have base camps before winter.

WEINBERG: The city has also hired a controversial private staffing firm called GardaWorld Federal Services to construct and build these base camps. It's a company that Denver actually decided against using. And the recent waves of asylum-seekers have also highlighted deep divisions in the city. Many communities have pushed back on having shelters for migrants in their neighborhoods, and residents of long-disinvested communities have said they want to see resources flowing into their neighborhoods just like the city is putting toward housing and supporting thousands of asylum-seekers.

DETROW: So let's actually talk a little more about Denver with Rebecca Tauber of Colorado Public Radio's Denverite. Rebecca, Tessa just said that Denver opted not to bring in a private company. Tell us how the city has been approaching this problem and how that's been working.

REBECCA TAUBER, BYLINE: Yeah, exactly as Tessa said, right before our last mayor, Michael Hancock, left office in the summer, he backed off of a $40 million all-inclusive contract with GardaWorld, which is that big international company. That's in part because activists had concerns about the company's track record, and the contract also would have cut local nonprofits who have already been doing this work out of the picture. So that means the city is still running migrant operations in-house under a state of emergency in partnership with nonprofits and hotels. In the meantime, we have a new mayor, Mike Johnston, and he's in the process of considering proposals from a number of nonprofits to break up that work and keep it more local. The goal is to hand this work off to them, but that's still in the process. So Denver's definitely taking a different approach from other big cities by circumventing a big company. But it'll be interesting to see if that works better. We honestly don't know yet.

DETROW: I mean, the federal government has tried to do several things to ease this problem. There's a pilot program the administration is kicking off this week in Chicago. It's designed to help new arrivals and shelters that are overwhelming the city apply for work authorizations to speed up that process. But what cities really want is money here, right? They've asked for $5 billion from the federal government. So I'm wondering what each city's general plan is to get through the next few months if there's no more resources coming from the federal government. Liz, let's start with you in New York.

KIM: Well, Mayor Adams has already announced that if he does not get more help from the state and federal government, he has no choice but to order budget cuts. And he's - we're talking about draconian cuts. So that's going to be very interesting to see how that develops because, certainly, New Yorkers are not prepared to see essential services cut.

DETROW: Tessa, what about Chicago?

WEINBERG: Chicago's really banking on more federal support coming through. We haven't heard budget cuts yet, but we're in the midst of budget discussions. And the city's acknowledged what they've budgeted for supporting migrants through next year is not going to be enough, so they need the extra help.

DETROW: And, Rebecca, what is Denver's general plan?

TAUBER: Similar to what Tessa said, we're in our budgeting process right now, too. And just between September, when the budget was initially announced, to now, the mayor's staff has said they are already recalculating how much they might have to spend from reserves on this, and that's in addition to softening sales tax revenue over the past couple months, so it's definitely worrisome to think about. This is what you spend emergency reserves for, but what if that converges with something else? Denver has spent 31 million in the past year and only gotten around 13.5 million from the state and federal government. The governor and last mayor set up a fund for individual donations, but it's hard to imagine that'll fill all of the need.

DETROW: Checking in on just three of the many cities dealing with this growing crisis. That was Rebecca Tauber with Colorado Public Radio's Denverite, Liz Kim with WNYC in New York and Tessa Weinberg from WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks to all of you.

TAUBER: You're welcome.

WEINBERG: You're welcome.

KIM: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARADE SONG, "SING TO ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Liz Kim
Tessa Weinberg
Rebecca Tauber