New York’s Mayor Eric Adams is fond of speaking about how his religious faith guides him. “I can’t separate my belief because I’m an elected official,” he said earlier this year at an interfaith prayer breakfast. “When I walk, I walk with God. When I talk, I talk with God.” It’s consistent with his upbringing in a Pentecostal church in Brooklyn where the Rev. Herbert Daughtry presided, merging religious faith with political activism as a critic of Mayor Edward Koch in the 1980s.
It’s a Bible-based faith, so as Adams confronts the crisis of finding housing for the more than 113,000 migrants who’ve come to New York in recent months, he would need to wrestle with one of the central themes of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament: the imperative to welcome strangers. For Christians, there is Jesus’ standard for final judgment: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). This distills dozens of references to migrants in the Hebrew Bible. For example: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
It’s a challenge not only for Adams, but for the entire city. The crunch of asylum-seeking migrants from across the southern border has more than doubled the number of people needing housing in city-run shelters—112,800, including 59,900 recently arrived migrants, as of September 13. The city’s “right to shelter” policy does not stem from charity; in 1979, a judge ruled that under the New York State Constitution, the city and state were required to shelter the unhoused, or “Bowery derelicts,” as the opinion said. In 1981, the Koch administration settled the case by agreeing to standards for the shelters and compliance monitoring. Ever since, mayors have been trying to water down or get out of the consent decree, and Adams has joined them.
The multi-billion-dollar cost of sheltering such a sudden influx of homeless people has touched a sore spot in the city’s psyche—the fear of fiscal insolvency, which has lurked ever since near-bankruptcy in the 1970s. The budget challenge is real, but Adams’s hyperbolic attempt to focus attention on it has stoked anti-immigrant fervor both locally and nationally. He made headlines with remarks that “this issue will destroy New York City” and that “the city we knew, we’re about to lose.”
New York mayors tend toward doomsday predictions when facing a budget nightmare in order to get attention from aloof federal and state officials. Adams’s estimate of a $12 billion cost over three years is close to a worst-case scenario, judging from a report from the city’s Independent Budget Office. But in any scenario, the cost is still big enough to plan for across-the-board spending cuts in the city’s annual budget of $107 billion, larger than that of all but four states. (The City Council has to approve the budget for it to take effect.)