‘A slap in the face’: Migrant shelters in public schools infuriate parents

Parents rallied in Williamsburg against the housing of migrants at the P.S. 17 and M.S. 577 school building gym.
Parents rallied in Williamsburg against the housing of migrants at the P.S. 17 and M.S. 577 school building gym.
Photo by Jada Camille

Students and parents of public school children are fuming over the placement of migrant families in their gymnasiums, marking a new area of strain as the city struggles to house newcomers.

One such gym at a school building in Williamsburg, which houses P.S. 17 and M.S. 577, has been converted into a makeshift shelter for migrants — and parents took to the streets in protest on Tuesday. 

The concerned adults, along with their young scholars clad in their school uniforms and backpacks, rallied around the campus on May 16, hours after being informed that migrants would be seeking emergency shelter in their standalone gym building.

The protesters held up signs saying  ‘No asylum on school grounds’ and ‘We need recess’ while chanting “We support asylum seekers, but not in our schools.”  

Lucia Gutierrez, president of the PTA for P.S. 17 and treasurer for M.S. 577,  alleged the worried moms and dads were given notice migrants would be kept in the gym a day before they were due to arrive.

“We’re out here because we were literally given a slap in the face. We were not informed. We were not even asked if we wanted this in our community. I get it, things are hard and there’s no room but this is not the place for these people,” Gutierrez said. “It’s not fair.”

At the time of the rally, the gym had been converted in a shelter, though migrants had not yet occupied the location. 

The situation is boiling over as migrants continue to pour into the country through the southern border, and every level of government struggles to keep pace. 

Photo by Jada Camille

Another Williamsburg mom, Jolene Mazzatenda, says the decision raises concerns of the children’s safety. She does not take issue with having migrants in the city, she said, but rather having them housed on school grounds.

“I’m out here because I fear for my son’s safety in the school. I support asylum seekers but not on school grounds. I mean you never know what they could be bringing in [or] what they can be doing,” she told Brooklyn Paper. 

Two other schools in Williamsburg are also slated to house migrants, according to the non-profit newspaper The CITY — PS 132 and P.S. 18. 

Southern Brooklynites are sharing the same concerns of the Williamsburg community, as a Coney Island school has been housing migrants as of May 14.

Maria Masullo, principal of P.S. 188, informed parents of the situation through a letter distributed on Friday, May 12.

“This week we worked closely with key city agencies to identify potential facilities that could serve as emergency, temporary sites to house individuals and families who are seeking asylum. We write to let you know that as of May 14, 2023, several families will be utilizing the standalone gym at our school on a short-term basis to house individuals and families who are seeking asylum,” the letter said. 

According to the note, the asylum seekers will not have access to other parts of the school, nor will they be near students and staff. 

The community was told the gym is being used as a temporary shelter while people are waiting to be processed, meaning it is not meant as a long term solution.

According to Council Member Ari Kagan, who represents the neighborhood, the school serving as a processing center could mean a new batch of migrants could be filtering throughout the center every few days, which would completely take the gym away from the students who attend the school.

“This gym belongs to Coney Island children and the Coney Island community. Not to any kind of shelter [or] processing center,” Kagan said. “It’s insane. I’m totally opposed to it. We’ll continue to oppose it because it’s a mess and absolutely unacceptable.”

The politician finds fault with the federal government’s approach to the migrant crisis and states the city shouldn’t fall victim to their “misguided policies.”

“I blame the federal government for completely withdrawing from their main responsibility to secure borders. To make sure we have an immigration system in place,” he said.

As the number of migrants increase, the number of appropriate spaces to keep them in is decreasing. In recent weeks, the city has opened approximately 150 emergency sites including eight large-scale humanitarian relief centers to serve more than 65,000 asylum seekers. Just last week, 4,200 migrants arrived and more are expected, according to a city hall spokesperson.

“We are opening emergency shelters and respite centers daily, but we are out of space. As the mayor has said, nothing is off the table as we work to fill our moral mandate, but we should all expect this crisis to affect every city service,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to communicate with local elected officials as we open more emergency sites.”

Council Member Justin Brannan, representative for district 43, calls the decision to make school gyms an emergency shelter “concerning” and “puzzling.”

“We can’t just keep taking on more asylum seekers without an action plan to move these folks through the system because the current system just has people stuck in purgatory and we need to set these individuals up so they can provide for themselves,” Brannan told Brooklyn Paper. 

“I have no idea who suggested putting migrants in a public school gym on the west end of Coney Island. Nobody thinks this location makes sense for a myriad of reasons.”

According to Brannan, people are most upset with the lack of communication throughout this process.

“So I think above all what we need right now is leadership and communication and coordination and thus far we haven’t seen any of that and I think that’s a big part of why folks are upset,” he said.

There has been no update on how long the immigrants will be housed in southern Brooklyn. As of May 16, they are still on the P.S. 188 campus.

Earlier today, Mayor Eric Adams said 15 more busloads of migrants could potentially be brought in over the weekend. This “national problem”  will affect every aspect of service in New York city if the response to the border isn’t reevaluated, according to Mayor Adams.

“We are carrying this entire burden. This national problem is being laid in the lap of New Yorkers. And I’ve said this over and over again and I need everyone to pay attention to what I’ve been saying for these last few months. This is an unsustainable crisis that’s been forced on New Yorkers and is going to continue to grow if there’s not a real response at our border and if there’s no assistance of a decompression strategy here in New York State,” Adams said.

The Mayor also claims schools were one of the last locations the administration wanted to make an emergency shelter. 

“None of us are comfortable with having to take these drastic steps. But I could not have been more clear for the last few months of what we are facing. Over 65,000 migrant asylum seekers have reached our city,” he said.

He noted that each gym being offered to migrants is a stand alone gym separate from the actual school buildings. 

For more coverage of the migrant crisis, head to BrooklynPaper.com.