Councilwoman calls out city negligence after migrant suicide at Dutch Kills shelter

Councilwoman Julie Won speaks out after a migrant from Venezuela committed suicide at a city-run shelter in Dutch Kills. (Photo by Paul Frangipane)

Following the recent suicide of a Venezuelan migrant at a city-run shelter for homeless families in Dutch Kills, Councilwoman Julie Won called out the negligence of the Department of Homeless Services and the shelter provider Samaritan Daytop Village.

Joined by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and immigrant rights advocates in front of the Evangel Food Pantry on Thursday morning, Dec. 22, Won demanded better access to mental health resources and translation services at the shelter she would not name for legal and safety reasons.

“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,” Won said. “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 has failed to provide assistance for the family to have a funeral for the deceased.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services, which oversees DHS, said the agency is assisting Ortega’s family.

“This is an absolutely heart-breaking tragedy, and we are working with the family to support them during this difficult time and addressing any concerns as they arise.,” the spokesperson said. “These families are coming to New York City after a months-long harrowing journey, in some cases, still reeling from the trauma they experienced along the way. We recognize the very unique challenges asylum seekers are facing and we remain committed to building on our ongoing efforts and interagency coordination to connect families and individuals to mental health supports as we help them stabilize their lives in a new country.”

Won announced that a GoFundMe campaign was set up to support the family, and help defray the funeral cost. Her office has received complaints about the lack of adequate and healthy food served at the shelter.

“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,” she said. “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.”

Won added that the shelter has created environments where residents’ health is put in danger. Mold is visible in residents’ rooms, as many as six residents are infected with chickenpox and there is no access to flu and other basic vaccinations. She said the danger of this behavior in the middle of a “tripledemic” is unacceptable and inhumane.

Ortega is the second asylum seeker to die by suicide at a Queens shelter after a Colombian mother of two children took her life at the Hollis Family Shelter in September.

“In the wake of a second asylum seeker losing their life to suicide, and in anticipation of another increase in arrivals, we must examine the holes in our service infrastructure, especially in the area of mental health, to help prevent future pain,” Williams said. “People who have come to our city seeking asylum have endured immense trauma, which must be met with increased empathy and treated with elevated mental health services. It is clearly not enough to do what we have done in the past – we must do more, and to provide more aid to asylum seekers, we must receive it from our governing partners. This is a national crisis that has become a New York crisis, and with the expectation of an increase in people arriving in the coming weeks, we cannot wait to put in place the plans and the resources necessary to meet the need.”

Williams urged Governor Kathy Hochul to get more municipalities across the state to “open their arms” like New York City has and urged the federal and state governments to “step up” with increased funding and resources.

Ortega’s wife Mari stood nearby and said her husband was a truck driver back in Venezuela and they had lived at the shelter for four months with one daughter. They had left two children back home when they began walking to the U.S.

John Ortega’s widow, Mari, detailed her family’s harrowing journey through a translator. (Photo by Paul Frangipane)

“I ask people to think about, what would it take for you to leave the comfort of home, leave family behind to walk through a jungle for weeks and months, passing dead bodies, not knowing what’s going on, simply for the chance of hope,” Williams said. “We have a moral obligation and responsibility not to cut these services but to enhance them. This is a crisis right now. People are killing themselves.”

Additional reporting by Paul Frangipane.