Loudspeaker message outside NYC migrant shelter warns new arrivals they are ‘not safe here’

Sep 13, 2023, 10:38 AM

Protest signs are posted outside the former Saint John Villa Academy being repurposed as a shelter ...

Protest signs are posted outside the former Saint John Villa Academy being repurposed as a shelter for homeless migrants, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in the Staten Island borough of New York. Scott Herkert, a New Yorker upset that the city has been housing homeless migrants on his suburban block, has set up a loudspeaker to deliver an unwelcoming message in six languages to his new neighbors: "The community wants you to go back to New York City. Immigrants are not safe here." (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

NEW YORK (AP) — A New Yorker upset that the city has been housing homeless migrants on his suburban block has set up a loudspeaker to deliver an unwelcoming message to his new neighbors: “The community wants you to go back to New York City. Immigrants are not safe here.”

The message, recorded in six languages, blares all day from a loudspeaker on Scott Herkert’s well-groomed front lawn on Staten Island, urging migrants brought to a temporary shelter inside a long-vacant Roman Catholic high school not to get off the bus. The message also claims the building has rats and cockroaches.

It is one of several ways some people have let shelter residents know they are not welcome on Staten Island, which, despite what the recording says, is part of New York City. Hundreds of protesters have also held a large rally outside the former school, urging the city to house migrants elsewhere.

The women and families placed by the city inside the former Saint John Villa Academy have heard the message loud and clear.

“We have to close our eyes and close our ears,” said Aminetou El Alewai, a 39-year-old woman from Mauritania who moved into the shelter last week. “We are good people. We are not criminals. We came because we have problems in our country.”

As thousands of migrants continue to arrive in New York City, officials have scrambled to open new emergency shelters, turning to tent facilities, school gyms and parks to comply with a state law requiring housing for the homeless. Though Staten Island is home to only a small fraction of those shelters, they have generated an outsize share of animosity.

The hostile reception coincides with increasingly dire rhetoric from Mayor Eric Adams, who warned last week that the migrant crisis would “destroy New York City.” The Democrat has insisted that the more than 100,000 who have arrived so far are welcome, but he has said the cost of housing tens of thousands of people could be as much as $12 billion over the next three years. Adams has rejected allegations from advocates of using migrants as “props” in an ongoing bid for federal money.

Staten Island is known for leaning conservative and Republican in a mostly liberal, Democratic city.

Herkert, a New York state court system employee, also has a tarp on his lawn painted with a profane version of the phrase, “No way!” Gesturing at the largely empty street in front of his home Tuesday, Herkert said the new shelter has upended his block’s quiet charm and brought toilets and dumpsters to the other side of his fence.

While the loudspeaker message — in Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Urdu, Chinese and English — warns that the former school is infested with roaches and mold, Alewai said she has found it to be perfectly clean, if a bit uncomfortable.

As Alewai spoke to Associated Press reporters on a sidewalk, parents picked up their children from a neighboring private school, directing nervous glances and, in one case, harsh words at the new arrivals.

“I am sorry for the trouble of the woman who was just talking,” Alewai said in French. “I came as a refugee to New York and they brought me here. Indeed, I am not comfortable here.”

Both employees and residents of the shelter said protesters have cursed at and threatened them, frequently playing loud music late into the night. Employee and lifelong Queens native Gabrielle Dasilva said she was recently told to go back to her home country.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office, Kayla Mamelak, said the administration was “disturbed to learn about the false messages being played outside the St. John’s Villa Academy respite site” and police are working to “maintain the peace in the area.”

“As always, New York City continues to provide care for asylum seekers with compassion and care,” she said.

City Councilman David Carr, a Republican who attended Saint John Villa Academy, defended the audio recording as protected First Amendment activity and said his constituents have good reason to worry about the high cost of housing migrants.

“This is an opportunity for folks in the neighborhood who are angry to demonstrate that constructively,” Carr said. “They’re just trying to ensure that their voices are heard.”

John Tabacco, a right-wing media personality and candidate for city comptroller, said he collaborated on the effort with Herkert and the loudspeakers messages have clearly resonated with neighbors.

“There have been a lot of concerned citizens out there, and they’ve been spending a lot of time doing some good old fashioned civil disobedience,” he said.

Around the corner, John Gurriera, a 72-year-old resident of Staten Island, said he was disappointed by the reaction from some of his neighbors, which he described as “not very Christian.”

“This is New York City,” he added. “We all came from someplace else.”

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Loudspeaker message outside NYC migrant shelter warns new arrivals they are ‘not safe here’