New York City’s only refugee shelter is out of space

I sat down with We Are Not Afraid staff member Stephanie Gaitan to talk about the state of New York City’s only refugee shelter.


Zac Hacmon

The RDJ Refugee Shelter inside Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church. (Courtesy of The R.D.J. Refugee Shelter)

Blake Salesin, Staff Writer

A seasonably cold and misty day gripped the city early Sunday afternoon. As I looked out my East Village window, I was preparing my desk to conduct an interview, opening my laptop and setting my meeting notes on a looseleaf paper to the side. Outside the school adjacent to my building was a bright blue tarp, draped over a sleeping figure.

A few moments later I was joined via Zoom by Stephanie Gaitan, a young New York City resident who has served the nonprofit We Are Not Afraid — a community resource center in Harlem — as an Americorps Volunteers in Service to America since January of last year. Split into two services, the E.W. Food Programs and the RDJ Refugee Shelter, WANA serves thousands of New Yorkers each month, as well as a small number of the growing population of asylum seekers in the city. 

“RDJ is a refugee shelter within WANA, so we only accept refugees,” Gaitan said. “We only accept men at the moment, because we only have space to house just one gender for safety reasons.”

New York City has supported the housing of refugees in temporary tent camps and expensive hotel rooms as the primary method of dealing with the increasing number of people entering the city. State programs exclude many immigrant families, and city officials have overall been less than generous in extending help to the unhoused.

RDJ is shockingly the only refugee-specific shelter in the city, and it houses a very small number of asylum seekers. Currently there are six guests in the space, but it can hold up to eight. What makes the shelter so unique are the guaranteed programs that refugees receive as part of their housing. 

The shelter guarantees housing for six months to a year, with most residents staying the full year. It also provides support in career searching, personal social workers and volunteer opportunities after moving on from the shelter. RDJ’s holistic approach to temporary housing could provide a safer and more stable environment for refugees — but it’s painfully underfunded. 

I first met Gaitan through a volunteering effort to collect winter clothes for the shelter, along with two of my Steinhardt classmates. Gaitan deals primarily with community outreach, social media and volunteer recruitment at WANA. She has her finger on the pulse of who is coming in for support and who is stepping up to aid the resource center.

“We have social workers who assist each refugee in working on the asylum applications they need to apply for their work visas and such,” Gaitan said. “They also assist with getting money for transportation, so [the residents] can get to their jobs. But ultimately, the hardest thing they do is find permanent shelter.”

With what limited resources it has, the shelter does a good job of supporting its residents. But in the face of scarcity, the workers there can only do so much. The space they have is not designed to house people. In fact, the shelter is just the undercroft of West Harlem’s St. Mary’s Epsicopal Church, a space that also houses WANA’s food programs and other community based projects during the day. The shelter’s heat is inconsistent and the only kitchen stove has been broken for months. 

“I run the Instagram and we get DMs from people seeking shelter — sometimes it’s families, sometimes it’s women,” Gaitan said. “We have to say, ‘We can’t take you.’ The space isn’t adequate for children or private enough for mixed-gender. I say, ‘You can still fill out the application for housing, because in the future we are possibly acquiring a new, larger space.’”

The shelter’s main obstacle will hopefully come to an end soon, however, with a proposed building expansion that could provide individual rooms, rooms for rent and multiple community spaces including a garden. The expansion is coming at an important time, said Gaitan, as the shelter is seeing an exponential increase in housing applications.

It comes back to New York City’s lack of foundational support for its immigrant populations. The state of New York does not include undocumented immigrants as asylum seekers in any of its supplemental housing programs. This leaves refugees contingent on a system of temporary housing that is essentially nonexistent for their specific needs. As shown by the increase in applications to RDJ, there is a dire need for a more expansive housing response to the crisis. Gaitan and others at WANA have consistently traveled to Albany to advocate at New York State Legislature meetings for the inclusion of undocumented immigrants in housing programs.

“If we could expand the opportunities refugees have in finding permanent housing we would have a faster turnover rate, which is good,” Gaitan said.

As the shelter continues its growth from a small church-run organization to a fully servicing non-profit, the need for funding grows as well. The shelter’s largest expense is by far food and pantry supplies, costing nearly $200,000, according to the 2021 Annual Report. The community group relies heavily on individual donations and charity grants — only 8% of funding comes from government grants, Gaitan said. Its goal is to mobilize the community to support its existing programs, fundraising to be able to relocate to a bigger space — and in return, taking in more temporary residents through its shelter program.

“The way students can help is, one, becoming informed,” Gaitan said. “A lot of people don’t know what’s happening, because maybe they’re not in that position, or when it comes to homelessness in New York City they see it as a grievance.” 

“And two, donate food,” she continued. “We run our pantry from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays and by 5 p.m. or 5:30 p.m., we run out. Food insecurity is everywhere right now. Even when people have housing, they can’t necessarily afford necessities beyond a roof over their heads.”

Organizing like RDJ needs community support, and as NYU students, we are in a place to provide it. There are several upcoming volunteer opportunities at WANA. Beyond the weekly food pantry on Mondays, which accepts food donations anytime before 4 p.m. on that day, the non-profit is holding a toy giveaway from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve and a potluck that same night. 

If you’re interested in volunteering on a regular basis at New York City’s only refugee shelter, visit WANA’s volunteering page to see where your help may be needed.

Contact Blake Salesin at [email protected].