On any given night, some 3,000 migrants sleep on cots lined up inside huge, heated tents on a small island with sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline.

But as New York struggles to house a surging number of immigrants from the U.S-Mexico border, there simply isn’t enough space in the sprawling complex on Randall’s Island, now the city’s largest shelter for asylum seekers.

So outside the camp’s gates, a handful of people have pitched their own tents in the cold dead of winter. Many have used up their allowed time in the city’s official shelter system and haven’t been able to secure another spot in the program or find their own places.

“I have many enemies and wouldn’t recommend any of this to any of them,” said Eliana Trillo, a woman from Venezuela who was sleeping in the unsanctioned tent camp last week during some of the most frigid nights of the year. “The cold gets in from everywhere.”

Nearby, entrepreneurial immigrants set up a rudimentary marketplace at the shelter’s entrance, hawking everything from homemade coffee to cigarettes, sneakers and jeans. With residents banned from cooking in city shelters, some prepared meals in a nearby public restroom, slicing raw meat on the men’s room sink next to the urinals and toilet stalls.

Brayann Ruedas, who was selling $1 cups of coffee on a frigid day this week, said it’s all he and others can do to eke out a living while waiting for their work authorization.

“I’m selling coffee because I can’t get a job,” the 27-year-old from Ecuador said in Spanish. “We arrived in the winter and there isn’t much work in the winter.”

Like other American cities, New York has seen a dramatic influx of migrants since in 2022, when Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered many of them bused from the border directly to Democratic-led cities. Big city mayors have begged repeatedly for more federal help. In Chicago, new arrivals have been forced to hunker down in libraries, police stations, airports and even parked city buses until shelter space frees up.

Opened in August, the Randall’s Island complex — which includes a series of tents for sleeping and others for dining and bathroom facilities — sits on sports fields at the island’s southernmost tip, where the Harlem and East rivers meet. It is accessible by highway or via a pedestrian bridge that stretches more than half a mile (1.1 km) to Manhattan.

Earlier this month, a 24-year-old Venezuelan man was fatally stabbed inside the city-run shelter. Then last week, a brawl ended with another young man being hospitalized with stab wounds. More than a dozen people were arrested.

Mariles Rivas, a 36-year-old from Venezuela who has been living on Randall’s Island for more than a month, said there simply isn’t enough security to maintain order in the shelter, which is comprised largely of single men.

“You can smell the danger,” she said in Spanish as she headed out of the camp with her partner on a chilly afternoon this week. “We were afraid of going back after what had happened, but we need to be here. We don’t want to be out in the cold.”

Migrants and their advocates complain there’s little to pass the time on the isolated island. An earlier iteration of the camp had a lounge area with televisions and lockers for safekeeping personal possessions, they say.

Dave Giffen, head of the Coalition for the Homeless, said the city has deliberately made life at Randall’s Island and other migrant shelters as untenable as possible to discourage people from staying, allowing simmering frustrations to boil over.

“If you just continually make things more difficult and more uncomfortable and harder for them, then it’s no surprise that we see people camping out in tents on the streets and sleeping on the subways,” he said. “We see people venting their anger and frustration, and we might see even worse outcomes.”

The consequences of these policies will reverberate for generations, warned New York City Council member Diana Ayala, a Democrat whose upper Manhattan district includes Randall’s Island.

“When you don’t have that stability, when you don’t have the emotional or social support, when you don’t know if you’re going to eat, it does something to your psyche,” she said.

Mayor Eric Adams’ office declined to comment this week on the tent camp or marketplace at Randall’s Island, but said officials are considering installing metal detectors there and at other migrant sites. The Democratic administration is also weighing whether to expand a curfew imposed at some facilities last week.

“Violence will not be tolerated and any illegality will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” spokesperson Kayla Mamelak wrote in an emailed statement. She declined to respond to follow-up questions.

More than 172,400 migrants have arrived and gone through the city’s intake system since the spring of 2022, Adams’ office said. The majority have since moved on to other places or become self-sufficient, but over 67,500 are currently in the city’s care.

In an effort to free up more space, the city has set a 30-day limit on shelter stays for single adult migrants like those on Randall’s Island. People can reapply after their time is up, but they aren’t guaranteed a bed and have to line up outside in the cold to make their petitions.

Despite the city’s decades-old “ right to shelter ” law — a uniquely New York policy obligating officials to provide emergency housing to anyone who asks — some 850 people are waiting for a shelter bed on any given night, and the average wait time is nearly nine days, according to the Legal Aid Society, which has been among the mayor’s most vociferous critics.

In the meantime, migrants are increasingly bedding down wherever they can.

Roberto Medina, a Mexican migrant who was selling grilled chicken and hot chocolate outside the Randall’s Island shelter this week, said that when his 30 shelter days ran out, he turned to sleeping in the subway, as countless others have.

“We have nowhere to go. We have no one to live with,” he said in Spanish. “I don’t have any family. I am not out here for fun, but simply out of necessity.”

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