In March, as COVID-19 swept through NYC, advocates worried that people facing homelessness would be especially vulnerable. The city’s crowded congregate shelters were becoming even more crowded, creating a dangerous situation in the dorm-style housing where it’s impossible to remain 6 feet apart. Photos surfaced in May showing people sleeping on the floor a few feet apart at one of the city’s intake shelters for homeless adults.
In response, advocates from seven different non-profits working on issues related to homelessness created a campaign called “Homeless Can’t Stay Home”. The campaign is advocating for a bill that would offer unhoused New Yorkers single hotel rooms for the remainder of the pandemic. Until that demand is met, they’re taking it upon themselves to provide those rooms by raising money through a GoFundMe. But they are running low on funds, the advocates say, and the bill to open up thousands of the city’s free hotel rooms to single adults experiencing homelessness has never received a vote. A vote scheduled for May was cancelled over concerns from the city’s homeless services agency and some shelter providers..
Funding for the rooms would be provided by FEMA, which sent a letter to NYC agencies in March — but only publicly reported in May — offering to pay 75 percent of the cost to house the homeless population during the pandemic.
The Department of Social Services, which handles the city’s homeless services, says 13,000 homeless single adults are currently in commercial hotels. However, that number includes 3,500 people who were already in commercial hotels repurposed as shelters prior to the pandemic.
Homeless people in hotels rented by the city are doubled up with strangers and can be subjected to stricter requirements, including curfews and having to pass through metal detectors, according to Hellen Strom of the Safety Net Project. Homeless Can’t Stay Home’s hotels, by contrast, are single rooms with no such restrictions.
About 19,000 single adults are in the city’s shelter system according to the Coalition For The Homeless. (Single adults are of most concern for coronavirus spread because families experiencing homelessness face less crowded shelters than single adults, as each family is allotted a separate room. Single adult shelters use dorm-style housing with 8-12 people per room where it can be impossible to socially distance.) A federally mandated annual survey by the city estimates at least an additional 3,500 people are living on the street, but advocates have long criticized this number as a likely undercount. The total homeless population across the city, which includes those on the street and staying with friends, is unknown, although the Department of Housing and Urban Development has estimated the number to be around 78,000 as of 2019.
88 people have died in NYC shelters from COVID-19 as of June 22, the Department of Social Services says. According to a report by the Coalition For The Homeless, the rate of deaths from the COVID in the city’s shelter system was 61 percent higher than in the city at large. There have been 1,200 positive COVID-19 cases in the city’s shelters over three months across 200 shelters, although the city says 90 percent of people have recovered.
The Homeless Can’t Stay Home campaign launched in March. While its founding organizations, including Human.NYC, VOCAL NY and the Safety Net Project, a division of the Urban Justice Center, push for the city to take on a coordinated effort to move unsheltered people into hotel rooms, the campaign has also raised $128,000 through a GoFundMe, which has allowed them to house about 28 people in hotel rooms.. The campaign says it costs about $500 a week per person to book the hotel rooms, and they will be out of funds by the first week of July.
The campaign initially planned to book the hotel rooms until the city passed legislation and took over the duty themselves. Because that hasn’t happened, they are shifting focus to finding permanent housing for the 28 people currently in hotels. They have launched a new GoFundMe toward this goal.
But without any certainty about this funding, some hotel guests are anticipating they will be on the street soon.
“I made up my mind to take all my stuff, throw it in the garbage and be prepared to get back on the streets,” said Marcus Moore, who is homeless and a member of Picture The Homeless, an advocacy organization. Moore is staying in one of the rooms provided by the Homeless Can’t Stay Home’s GoFundMe. He says he was offered a double room in Jamaica, Queens by the Department of Homeless Services but, not wanting to room with a stranger, turned it down. The Department of Homeless Services has maintained that keeping two people to a room is safe and would allow social distancing, which advocates contend.
Moore, who works making deliveries for DoorDash, says he was insulted by the offer from DHS, which would displace him far from his support network and pair him in a room with a stranger. He says the DHS treats homeless people as if they are looking for a hand-out.
“A lot of us are like any other New Yorkers. We work, but we just can not afford rent, there’s no low-income housing for us, so we stay in the streets and make do,” he says.
Celina Trowell, homelessness union organizer with the group VOCAL NY, said she was disappointed in the lack of engagement with the bill from elected officials. She points out that most of the people experiencing homelessness in NYC are Black and Latino — almost 90 percent, according to the Coalition For The Homeless.
“We’re out here in this current uprising fighting for our Black lives and we’re still being looked over,” Trowell says of the Council ignoring the legislation.
The bill to offer hotels to single adults who are homeless was introduced in New York’s City Council introduced on April 22 by city councilmember Stephen Levin, the result of advocacy from the Homeless Can’t Stay Home campaign. It is opposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, as well as by the city’s Department of Social Services, which runs the city’s Department of Homeless Services.
In an e-mail to Next City, Isaac Mcginn, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services, emphasized that the city’s approach was safe. The city is moving anyone with COVID symptoms out of shelters and to isolation units, Mcginn says. DSS says it has been moving about 1000 people per week from crowded shelters to hotels.
“Rather than affecting a mass migration of all clients out of shelter, which could create public health concerns, and is not necessary for implementing social distancing guidelines, DSS’ tiered approach focuses on targeting need based on individual vulnerability/potential level as well as site configuration,” Mcginn said in a statement sent to Next City.
Mcginn also called the City Council bill “ham-fisted and reckless” in an e-mail to Gothamist. The department argues that additional nurses and clinical staff are needed for the rooms, estimating they would cost the city an additional $495 million over 6 months which FEMA would not cover.
Josh Dean, of the group Humans.NYC, says the Department of Social Services is overestimating the amount of homeless people who have substance abuse or mental illness.
“We’ve got a really independent group of people in the hotels,” Dean said of the 28 people who have been put up in hotels through the GoFundMe.
“They paint this broad picture of people who are street homeless as severely mentally ill, they’ve been out there for decades, they have substance use disorders,” Dean said. But many who are street homeless, he points out, are there simply because they could not afford rising rents and they wish to avoid a dangerous shelter system.
“I think they too often use that one population of people as an excuse not to serve the other population,” he said.
The bill also is meant to help people avoid interactions with the police, who clear street homeless out of public areas and have a presence in shelters, the Homeless Can’t Stay Home campaign says. Earlier this month, in response to police sweeps of the subway system that turned many unsheltered homeless people back out onto the street the campaign also released a report and series of demands to defund the police and remove police from homelessness enforcement. According to the campaign’s estimate, the NYPD spends $20 million a year for homeless “outreach,” with another $50 million for private security and NYPD in shelters. The group’s calculation does not take into account the estimated 1,000 officers that have been sent to clear out the homeless from the subway system each night since overnight service ended. Mayor de Blasio has said the approach is “compassionate and decent” and that it was “ending street homelessness.” However, the majority of those offered stays in city shelters during overnight subway sweeps have rejected the offer and many have ended up in the streets or on city buses. People who are street homeless or sleeping on subways are also not immediately eligible for the city’s commercial hotels, as the majority of rooms are reserved for people currently in shelters.
“There’s tons of people who would come off the street if there were single hotel rooms, but they don’t have hotels open,” says Helen Strom of Safety Net Project.
Advocates in the Homeless Can’t Stay Home campaign want the city not just to house people during the pandemic, but to transition them to permanent housing. They are frustrated that there is currently no plan to transition hotels into permanent housing.
“They have yet put in place a plan for how to transfer our brothers and sisters to permanent, supportive housing that’s needed,” Trowell says. “It’s frustrating, infuriating actually.”
Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.