By Annie McDonough | November 13, 2023
Inside midtown Manhattan’s grandly appointed Roosevelt Hotel – New York City’s central intake center for migrants – sit rows and rows of chairs. Lightly padded, a couple steps more comfortable than a plastic folding chair, they’re lined up under the chandelier in the hotel’s sprawling lobby. And on the deep red carpets of the oval-shaped Palm Room. And across from makeshift medical screening rooms in what once served as the main dining room.
Newly arrived migrants still recovering from often grueling journeys – many from Latin America, but also from Africa and the Caribbean – sit with napping kids in these chairs for hours, waiting to find out where they’ll sleep that night.
Once every couple weeks these days, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom said she will come to the Roosevelt with politicians or a reporter. “I think we were doing such a good job of keeping everything really quiet, and decided that we had to make sure that people were seeing what’s going on,” she said recently, referring to the city’s massive response to the influx of migrants. On a tour in mid-October, Williams-Isom threaded through the rows of chairs, stray baby strollers and a toddler making a break toward a bar where snacks and drinks were available, to point out the intake center’s many functions. Contractors staffing the site take down information about newly arrived migrants, including where they ultimately want to go and whether they know anybody in the city who they can stay with. Medical screenings are conducted and vaccinations are provided. The north side of the city block-sized hotel functions as a shelter for families.
A former deputy commissioner at the city’s child welfare agency and the former CEO of the nonprofit Harlem Children’s Zone, Williams-Isom’s career has been built on prioritizing the needs of children and families – as well as the voices of community members and advocates. She is an expert in knowing what children and families need to thrive.
Now, as deputy mayor, Williams-Isom has taken on a new role as the de facto manager of the multiagency response to the influx of more than 130,000 asylum-seekers to the city since spring 2022. Colleagues and the agency commissioners who report to her describe the Queens native as a level-headed leader who brings both compassion and pragmatism to her work, and to the other health and social services-related work in her portfolio.
But managing the city’s response to asylum-seekers has also put Williams-Isom in the middle of controversial decisions that advocates argue will leave asylum-seeking children and families far from being able to thrive.
Mayor Eric Adams has continued to make the case that the city is past its capacity and is doing everything it can to help asylum-seekers, laying the responsibility for additional action at the feet of the federal and state governments. It’s a case that Williams-Isom is making in increasingly strong terms too, though the reality of what asylum-seekers are facing leaves a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. “The best thing for a child is for parents (to) be consistent and have what they need. This is like the total opposite of that, in some ways. Because the kids are 100% traumatized. Parents don’t know and have no consistency,” Williams-Isom said. “I think putting all my training in the forefront of my mind and trying to say, ‘OK, well, how do you make the best of a bad situation,’ is the way I think that we’ve been trying to approach this.”
Williams-Isom is a lawyer by training, but after a few short stints at two New York City law firms in the early 1990s, she turned to the work that has defined her career thus far: children’s welfare. Williams-Isom spent 13 years at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, joining as director in the Office of Community Planning and Development in 1996, and departing as a deputy commissioner for community and government affairs. Prior to becoming a lawyer, Williams-Isom also worked in community affairs at the New York City Police Department.
The common denominator was always evident in her approach to the work, former colleagues said. “For, I would venture, pretty much the entirety of her time at ACS, she was responsible for ensuring that community was at the table, that community voice was being not just heard, but listened to, and then incorporated both into our planning and into the implementation of reforms,” said Jennifer Jones Austin, CEO and executive director of FPWA and a former deputy commissioner at the Administration for Children’s Services.
Jones Austin recalls “warranted” distrust in the agency at the time, driven by an excessive number of Black and brown children removed from families and concerns about the safety of children in foster care. Williams-Isom worked to build bridges to often distrusting communities.
Williams-Isom eventually left ACS to work in even closer proximity to children and families, joining Harlem Children’s Zone as chief operating officer in 2009 before becoming CEO five years later. The nonprofit aims to break cycles of poverty, serving Harlem from “cradle to career” with early childhood programs, its K-12 Promise Academy Charter Schools, all the way through to college and career readiness. Her tenure included the development of health and wellness initiatives and the expanded use of data to identify and meet kids’ needs. Current CEO Kwame Owusu-Kesse – who served as Williams-Isom’s chief operating officer – said she continually raised the bar of excellence at the organization. That bar was defined, he said, by asking whether the organization’s leaders would put their own kids in their programs.
“None of this is good”
“If you see some of the places where people are, we don’t want people living in those places,” Williams-Isom said. The deputy mayor is moving through the Roosevelt Hotel, responding to a question about why the city has said for months that it’s out of capacity to shelter asylum-seekers, even as it continues to find additional sites.
Management of the asylum-seeker response initially fell to Williams-Isom by coincidence, she said. The Department of Homeless Services, New York City Health + Hospitals and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs all fall under her deputy mayor portfolio.
Though it’s far from her only responsibility, a good chunk of Williams-Isom’s 16-hour days and working weekends are spent on the asylum-seeker response. There are meetings and calls with agency commissioners and City Hall leaders discussing capacity issues or longer-term resettlement plans, with city lawyers working on the right to shelter mediation and with state leaders advocating for additional support. She’ll also visit new shelter sites when they open, or check in on the Asylum Application Help Center – a key piece of the city’s efforts to put migrants on the path to work authorization and legal status.
Williams-Isom is able to praise what the city has accomplished – creating hundreds of emergency shelters, helping thousands of people file asylum applications – while also calling it like it is. Walking through the Roosevelt Hotel intake center doesn’t feel good. “To me, when you look at the folks here, you look at the anxiety in their eyes and the despair in their eyes – I mean, I love the National Guard, but seeing the National Guard here, it reminds me of this dark moment that we’re in,” she said. “Are there a little less butterflies in my stomach if I’m like, ‘Oh, it looks like we have extra chairs and things look like they’re not so crazy?’ I think yes. But I try to calibrate my emotions to remind myself that none of this is good.”
A member of Abyssinian Baptist Church, Williams-Isom rarely misses service on Sundays. Exercise, weekly therapy, time with her husband and three adult children is essential. She’s also the caretaker for her 93-year-old mother, who emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago. Those relationships “fill her cup,” she said.
Still, the frustration she and others in City Hall feel about the migrant crisis is evident, including the frustration Williams-Isom said she feels with herself. Discussing the city’s work to help migrants with legal services, she asked, “Why isn’t the federal government getting a building down in the Jacob Javits Center and fucking doing this themselves?” The question, asked in a tone more exhausted than angry, sounded like one that has been asked many times at City Hall without a satisfying answer.
But frustration isn’t a strategy, she said. “I think sometimes I get frustrated with the way it’s being covered.” Then she gets frank with herself. “I’m like, ‘Get out of your head, dude. This is not about what any particular writer says or what they’re seeing on television. These people are coming here, and they are in a bad situation. You’re going to complain about your little, ‘Oh, I just wish people understood more?’”
When Williams-Isom ran her first New York City Marathon in 2000, she approached it with a blend of pragmatism and emotion. She planned to make it to the finish line by taking it one mile at a time, dedicating each mile to a different memory with her father, who had died 12 years earlier. She finished in 5:30:14, and ran the marathon three more times.
This blend, colleagues said, is what Williams-Isom shows up to work armed with every day. Williams-Isom will state plainly that the situation is not ideal, but it’s where the city is at, said New York City Emergency Management Commissioner Zach Iscol. “She’s able to ground that so that a lot of very idealistic folks are still able to roll up their sleeves and get work done where the constraints or the resources or the scope of the problem may not enable us to do everything that we would want to do,” he said, adding that the deputy mayor has delivered more than one “Braveheart”-like speech in the basement of City Hall.
But lately, without much indication that federal assistance is on its way and as the influx of asylum-seekers continues, the Adams administration is turning to policies aimed at moving people out of the city’s care that immigration and housing advocates criticized as dangerous, even lacking in compassion.
That included the city’s ongoing attempt to modify the right to shelter to allow significant flexibility in the mandate, a matter that is now in mediation. The city has also instituted limits on stays in shelter – 30 days for single adults, 60 days for families with children – that are paired with case management to help people identify and address obstacles to finding more permanent housing, including buying them plane tickets to other cities. But the policies have created confusion and what advocates called needless reshuffling for those who have nowhere else to go and must reapply for shelter placement.
“The 60-day rule is nothing short of harassment,” said Christine Quinn, president and CEO of shelter provider Win and former City Council speaker. “It’s not going to make people go away, it’s just going to make them reapply.”
City Hall has said that less than 20% of those who have received notices so far have returned to city care, but it’s not clear what happened to the other 80% of people. “Everybody is so concerned about how we’re going to take care of families and children, and everyone knows that the only way that we can do that is through some time limits and some intensive case practice,” Williams-Isom said at an October press briefing.
But families with children will be put in much more precarious situations under these policies, advocates said, putting in jeopardy the kind of consistency that Williams-Isom said children need. The administration has said that kids’ schooling won’t be disrupted if they’re reassigned to a different shelter at the end of the 60-day limit, but hasn’t provided details on how that disruption will be prevented.
And despite the fact that right to shelter rules prevent families with children from being put in congregate settings, a new tent shelter for families at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn is set to keep families in a so-called semicongregate setting.
“Mayor Adams is putting children in danger by forcing some asylum-seeking families to stay in congregate settings as well as mandating families reapply for shelter after 60 days, a move that creates unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles for people who are already struggling,” New York Immigration Coalition Executive Director Murad Awawdeh said in statement following the announcement of shelter limits.
Despite their division on key issues, Quinn – a vocal critic of the administration’s attempts to roll back the right to shelter – praised Williams-Isom for keeping an open mind. “I’ve been impressed with how she sees every meeting you have with her as an opportunity to make something good happen,” Quinn said. “You can be in disagreement with her as much as there is, and she’ll still keep meeting with you. She’s not one of those people who writes you off.” Even so, Quinn said she hasn’t seen much compromise from the administration on the right to shelter.
Asked how she reconciles knowing what families and children need to thrive and knowing that they’re receiving less than that in the city, Williams-Isom’s mind goes to the practical. “I think one of the most important things is even when children are in traumatic situations, as long as their mom and their auntie and others are close, they feel good. Getting them vaccinated and making sure that we have the medical care that they need,” she says. “What are the things that we can do now to reduce the most amount of harm?”
Juggling it all
Despite the demands of the city’s asylum-seeker response, Williams-Isom said she spends more than half of her time on other work. When Williams-Isom was appointed to the job almost two years ago – part of a team of female deputy mayors who have mostly stuck around – she envisioned being the point person for the issues she has become an expert on, like child welfare. She was also excited to work on issues she didn’t have as much experience on, like homelessness.
Although she said the job has been a 180-degree change from what she expected, she has been able to do some of the work she hoped to accomplish. Williams-Isom is working with Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner Jess Dannhauser to prevent more families from entering the child welfare system, where Black and Hispanic families are still far more likely to be accused of maltreatment. One of their joint priorities has been training the physicians, teachers and other mandated reporters who notify the state of suspected child abuse to understand when and how they can help families without making a report.
The city has also launched a suite of health blueprints and initiatives, from a mental health plan, to expanding access to midwives and doulas, to the recently announced campaign to extend life expectancy in the city.
Interagency work is what Williams-Isom enjoys most. That included the Subway Safety Plan, an effort to move people sheltering in the subways to shelter and, for people experiencing mental illness, to hospitals. Launched a few months prior to the influx of asylum-seekers, this initiative, along with sweeps of homeless street encampments, was strongly criticized by advocates for homeless people. Williams-Isom continues to have biweekly meetings of a “subway safety task force” with the NYPD, the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Health and others.
It stands to reason that the demands of the migrant crisis would take time away from the other priorities on Williams-Isom’s agenda, though she said that’s not the case, thanks to regular meetings with commissioners who spearhead the administration’s priorities.
“You’ve got to juggle it all,” said Melanie Hartzog, who served as budget director under Mayor Bill de Blasio before becoming deputy mayor for health and human services in late 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic – which has receded as the city’s most pressing crisis – was exactly that when Hartzog was in City Hall. Juggling crises with substantial policy agendas is what you sign up for, she said. “That’s exactly what Anne’s doing,” said Hartzog, who is now president and CEO of social services nonprofit The New York Foundling. “She’s dealing with the migrant crisis, and she still has an agenda to move forward.”
Work to be done
It’s easy to see how the city’s asylum-seeker response has, at times, been plagued by controversy: when Chief Adviser Ingrid Lewis-Martin’s called for the feds to close the southern border, which the administration later walked back, when adviser Tim Pearson reportedly got in a violent altercation with security guards at a migrant shelter or when Adams abruptly canceled an asylum-seeker meeting with White House officials in order to attend to an FBI raid at the home of his chief campaign fundraiser.
As deputy mayor, Williams-Isom seems to stand apart from those distractions as one of the people in City Hall who keeps the wheels of government turning.
“When people ask me what am I going to look back on, I don’t know that I’ll be like, ‘the migrant crisis,’” Williams-Isom said, saying those last three words in a sort of drawn out, faux-menacing voice.
But according to the mayor, others will remember her for it. At a recent press conference where administration officials were questioned about the asylum-seeker response, Adams closed with an impromptu speech of effusive praise for Williams-Isom. “The best thing that ever happened to us on this crisis was DM Anne Williams-Isom,” Adams said to a round of applause from the other top City Hall brass seated. “Her book is going to be a bestseller. … Later, you guys are going to be looking over what this woman did and realize that the humanitarian crisis that other people would have run away from, she stood and weathered it. And I thank her every night for that.”
Several seats down the dais and just off camera, Williams-Isom was shaking her head. “I think as women, those kinds of compliments, we’re just like, ‘Ergh, compliments.’ It feels yucky,” she said. And it’s not just her doing that work, she said, but a long list of commissioners and staffers.
She believes Adams was trying to compliment the humanity she brings to work – though that should be a prerequisite not deserving of praise, she said. And though political crisis memoirs are all the rage in New York, she’s not planning on writing one.
But her visible discomfort at the mayor’s praise was also driven by the fact that the city is still in the thick of it. “It feels weird to me to say ‘good job,’ and there’s thousands of people here. Literally, last night, we were trying to figure out where we’re going to put people. So it doesn’t feel like ‘good job’ to us yet. We’re not spiking the ball.”