Queens, NY –  On Thursday, December 22nd, Council Member Won, NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and allies from African Communities Together, Asian American Federation, New York Immigration Coalition, MASA, and Make the Road New York responded to the tragic suicide of John, a recent migrant to our city, in a city shelter. The Council Member, her colleagues, and the community offered condolences to his family and called out the negligence of Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and the shelter provider Samaritan Daytop Village for a lack of care, access to wraparound services like mental health resources, cultural competency, language translations in Spanish, and access to enough fresh food that has proven fatal too many times over the past few years. 

31,000 people have arrived here from the southern border this year, many of whom are not English proficient. The mayor has spent millions on tent cities but did not ensure that these services were provided in the languages spoken by those who need it. With the end of Title 42, the city expects even more people to need services and shelter. The Council Member’s office has been made aware of a number of issues with the services provided by this shelter particularly, most troublingly an almost complete lack of Spanish speaking staff or service providers on the occasions when the Council Member visited. They also shed light on the lack of adequate, healthy, or culturally competent food served at the shelter which has reportedly caused multiple children to get sick as reported to our office by local schools.  

The shelter has created environments where resident health is put in danger. Mold is visible in residents’ rooms and is not dealt with in a timely manner. Transmissible disease has also been reported as 6 shelter residents were infected with chickenpox and many children suffered gastrointestinal issues and the shelter lagged in its medical response. Residents also complained about lack of access to flu and other basic vaccinations. The danger of this behavior in the middle of a tripledemic is unacceptable and inhumane.

The Council Member made a clear and unequivocal call to make language access a key priority for our city as we enter the new year. Earlier this year she was able to secure $5,000,000 to create the nation’s first Community Interpreter Bank and Worker Cooperatives that recruits, trains, and dispatches interpreters locally in our city instead of spending taxpayer dollars to contract with vendors outside of the state. Yesterday she passed 2 bills to expand the language access law and push city agencies to partner with local organizations that have strong track records of providing culturally competent and linguistically accessible services. 

The shelter provider has not provided support for John’s cremation and funeral services, but there has been a GoFundMe set up to support the family in this difficult time.  ​​https://gofund.me/bfa6ab52

“As immigrants, we dream of stepping foot on U.S. soil with great hopes and dreams of a better life. It is heartbreaking that John Ortega, 26 years old, took the long journey by foot from Venezuela and found himself hopeless in desperation that he took his own life. He leaves behind his partner and three children. John’s loved ones cried out that Samaritan Daytop Village did not provide mental health services despite their requests for help. DHS did not notify my office of John’s death and have failed to provide assistance for the family to have a funeral for the deceased,” said Council Member Julie Won. “Whether a person arrives from Latin America, Africa, or other parts of the world, they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, but that is not what we’re seeing in our shelters. It is shameful that children living in these shelters have gotten sick and go to bed hungry because the food they’re given is inedible and inadequate. Samaritan Daytop Village should stop confiscating groceries from shelter residents and should not confiscate microwaves. DHS must make sure all shelters provide migrants access to health and mental health services as well as other wraparound services to avoid another preventable death in our shelters.”

“As New Yorkers who take pride in our spirit of welcoming immigrants at a time when many lawmakers across the country are playing political stunts, we must do more across all levels of government to provide adequate support for those arriving in the City”, said Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez. “The second suicide in a NYC shelter is beyond tragic and speaks to the need for immediate reform. Providing mental health services and healthy meals will at bare minimum help prevent future painstaking losses of life. My heart goes out to the family and loved ones of the asylum seeker who lost their life.”

“My heart goes out to the families of both men who have lost their lives,” said Comptroller Brad Lander. “These men and thousands of people bravely travelled to our border hoping for security, but instead used callously as political pawns. To hold up New York’s promise of a safe harbor, our City—with state and federal assistance—must provide a continuum of care from safe shelter, language-accessible mental health services, to culturally appropriate and healthy food.”

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