As city and state officials continue to implement measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 in New York—which is now the U.S. epicenter of the crisis—advocates say vulnerable New Yorkers, including the city’s thousands of homeless individuals, have been left behind.
As of April 7, a total of 13 homeless individuals have died due to complications from COVID-19, while 244 city shelter residents (across around 97 locations) and 12 unsheltered individuals have tested positive.
That increasing number is why homeless advocates including VOCAL-New York, Picture the Homeless, and Human.nyc, along with some elected officials, have called on Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to house homeless individuals in 30,000 of the city’s more than 100,000 vacant hotel rooms. There are a total of 123,963 hotel rooms across the five boroughs, according to NYC & Company; the Real Deal recently reported that NYC hotel occupancy rates have fallen 80 percent.
Taking this step, advocates argue, will allow homeless New Yorkers—both those who are currently living in congregate shelters and those who are unsheltered—to adequately practice social distancing and prevent the spread of the virus.
Some cities across the country have already begun housing their homeless populations in empty hotel rooms. In New Orleans, homeless individuals have been housed at a local Hotel Garden Inn, while San Francisco officials have so far secured leases for 300 hotel rooms to house homeless residents, and will do so with an additional 3,000 rooms.
“We try to say very often that we are a progressive city, a progressive state, and very often we are behind other cities and other states,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said during during a VOCAL-NY press call earlier this week.
The city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) says it has ramped up its cleaning and sanitizing efforts across shelters. In single adult locations (which are set up like dorms, with eight to 12 beds per room) it has staggered meal times and taken other steps to limit gatherings. The agency has also implemented new protocols to connect shelter residents who have tested positive or shown COVID-19 symptoms to its more than 700 isolation units.
Most recently, according to Department of Social Services spokesperson Isaac McGinn, the city has begun relocating the most vulnerable residents to dedicated shelters for isolation. “As this unprecedented situation evolves, we’re evolving with it, and continue explore new policy responses to protect the health of those who we serve,” he said in a statement.
But several individuals staying at city shelters say that social distancing is impossible to practice, and that some locations don’t have the necessary tools to follow proper sanitizing protocols.
“Social distancing is something that is not even in [the shelter staff’s] vocabulary; our beds are 35 inches apart,” Alfonzo Forney, who recently stayed at the Clark Thomas Shelter on Wards Island, said on a recent press call. “They don’t give us face masks, they don’t have sanitizer for us to use, there’s no sanitizing of the bathrooms, the living quarters, for days on end.” Forney also noted that he bought disinfectant and hand sanitizer to give to DHS staff.
The pandemic has exacerbated a homelessness crisis that was already impacting the health of over 60,000 homeless individuals sleeping in shelters every night and the more than 3,000 New Yorkers sleeping on the streets and in the subways.
“We know that homelessness is horrible for your health, even before COVID-19, we knew that people who are homeless have worse health than people who aren’t homeless, have higher mortality rates overall—we also know that around the country the homeless population is aging,” NYU Langone Health emergency room physician Kelly Doran said during the call.
Doran commended the city for taking steps to setup isolation sites for those who have confirmed COVID-19 cases, but “the enormity of the [novel coronavirus] crisis combined with the enormity of our homelessness crisis in New York City requires that we do even more, we need a Herculean response very very quickly to protect all of our fellow New Yorkers who can’t protect themselves by just staying at home.”
Williams echoed the urgency of putting forth a plan at the city and state levels to house homeless individuals and prevent the continued spread of the virus.
“We seem to be playing with this question of who deserves care, who deserves to be safe during this crisis, and the answers are disheartening,” he said. “It is clear that we had no plan at all to deal with particularly vulnerable populations at the onset of this crisis, and it is clear that we still have no plan for vulnerable populations as we are going through this crisis, and that is unacceptable.”