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NYC commits to housing more homeless individuals in empty hotel rooms

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Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that around 2,000 homeless New Yorkers would soon be relocated to prevent the spread of COVID-19

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Around 2,000 homeless New Yorkers sleeping on the streets and in city-run shelters will soon be transferred into hotel rooms to prevent the continued spread of the novel coronavirus. The move comes weeks after several nonprofit groups called on the city to take specific steps to protect its homeless population during the pandemic.

At a press conference on April 11, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that 6,000 homeless individuals would be relocated into empty hotel rooms. Of those 6,000 individuals de Blasio mentioned, 3,500 have already been transferred to commercial hotels used as shelters prior to the pandemic and 500 have been put in isolation, as the city began to transfer seniors last week. That means the total number of individuals that will be transferred from crowded shelters into hotels starting this week is around 2,000.

Last week, several groups that advocate for the homeless—including VOCAL-NY, Human.nyc, Safety Net and Picture the Homeless—called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to relocate individuals sleeping on the streets and those in crowded single adult shelters into 30,000 of the 100,000 empty New York City hotel rooms. Cities across the country including New Orleans, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have already started expanding access to hotel rooms for homeless individuals.

In his announcement, de Blasio said that those shelter residents would be relocated to hotels by April 20, prioritizing seniors, individuals who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or exhibited symptoms, and those staying in shelters with limited space to practice social distancing. DHS said the city decided to avoid a mass transfer of individuals from shelters into hotel rooms due to possible public health concerns, and would rather target specific vulnerable individuals to transfer to hotel rooms.

“Some shelters have a lot of space, some do not,” de Blasio said. “Where it’s clear to our Department of Social Services [DSS] and our Department of Homeless Services [DHS] that social distancing cannot be achieved properly, a number of those clients will be moved to hotels to achieve the balance, to make sure there is the proper social distancing.”

For New Yorkers sleeping on the streets and in the subways, de Blasio also announced that the city will open 230 new transitional housing or safe haven beds. “We’re going to work hard to get more and more people off the streets into shelter, particularly those who are older. That will be a focus—an intense focus in these next weeks,” he said.

But advocates say that though the move is a step in the right direction, there is a lot more to be done to prevent the spread of the virus among the more than 60,000 homeless New Yorkers sleeping in shelters every night and over 3,000 sleeping on the streets. According to DHS, as of April 12, 23 homeless individuals have passed away due to COVID-19, and there are 371 cases confirmed positive cases among individuals staying in shelters (across 125 locations) and 19 cases among unsheltered individuals.

“Thousands of human beings will still be left on the streets and tens of thousands will be left in highly dangerous shelter. Failure to immediately help all homeless New Yorkers will result in a failed public health response that will not stop the spread of COVID-19,” Peter Malvan, advocate and homeless New Yorker said in a statement released by VOCAL-NY.

“The sooner the Mayor can offer 30,000 single hotel rooms with individual bathrooms to all homeless people in congregate shelters and on the street, the better it is for all New Yorkers,” he added.

Advocates added that de Blasio has not yet acknowledged the “inherent dangers” that shelter residents staying in crowded dorm-like settings currently face. In an open letter sent last week, more than 150 New York City healthcare professionals outlined the public health concerns of such settings.

“Homeless New Yorkers are more vulnerable to getting sick, especially those in congregate shelters or on the streets, and those who become sick are more likely to suffer a more severe course, which will require more hospital resources and ultimately result in more deaths,” the letter reads. “Given the need to ‘flatten the curve’ and preserve already strained hospital resources, we need to intervene.”