It was not a scene you would expect on Manhattan’s Upper East Side: police escorting groups of homeless individuals up out of the subway, where they stood, confused, in front of the Second Avenue subway station on 96th Street. Unhoused New Yorkers have long turned to the trains for shelter, and increasingly so during the months that the COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the city.
But New York’s public transit network is no longer a refuge for the city’s over 3,000 unsheltered homeless individuals. Since that night, May 6, hundreds of homeless New Yorkers sleeping on the NYC subways and stations have—paradoxically—been left without a home again. Homeless individuals have been escorted by police officers and outreach workers out of the subway so that the trains can be sanitized overnight (from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.), suspending the system’s 24/7 service for the first time in its 115 years of history.
“Many people were not familiar with the Upper East Side; they were walking out clearly not sure where to go,” says Craig Hughes, an advocate with nonprofit Safety Net Project, who went to 96th Street’s Second Avenue station to check on individuals left without shelter for the night and see what the process looked like. Hughes said it was, overall, a “very sad and scary sight.”
Police followed the homeless individuals out of the station, and there were more police officers outside on the street, along with outreach workers offering referrals to city shelters or transitional housing called safe havens.
Individuals who did agree to go into shelters would be directed toward small Citi Care buses: “I watched four people get put into this little bus, in seats that were nowhere near six feet apart,” Hughes says. There was a good chance that those buses took them to the Bellevue 30th Street single men intake shelter—a center that is, as Hughes puts it, “one of the most feared shelters in the entire city.”
The city-run 30th Street Men’s Shelter has had several violent incidents in the past, at times fatal. But on the first week of the subway’s overnight closures, a large number of homeless individuals were reportedly transported there from stations and met with an overcrowded facility, with some individuals even sleeping on the building’s floors, according to a recent report from The City. Some individuals even left after been transported there, as NY1 reported. The city has since begun to send buses to locations other than Bellevue.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said the overnight subway closures and homeless outreach plan had seen “unprecedented results and the trend continues now for over a week very, very consistently,” in a May 13 press conference. He added that “if we can sustain this, it’s going to have a very long-term and positive impact reducing homelessness in New York City.”
However, so far, numbers from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) show that on the first days of the overnight subway shutdown (from May 6 to May 10), of the 824 people who accepted referrals to shelters, safe havens (transitional housing), or stabilization beds from outreach workers, only 201 checked in to their placements. In short, only around 24 percent of those who accepted referrals ended up in shelters.
“Even the best-case scenario here is trying to move people from one setting that is unsafe, the subways, to another setting that is unsafe, the shelter system,” says Kelly Doran, an emergency room doctor and professor at NYU who conducts research on homelessness.
As of May 15, there have been 806 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases across 179 shelters, resulting in 65 deaths. Several homeless individuals in shelters that Curbed has spoken to agree that following social-distancing guidelines in congregate, dorm-like settings is nearly impossible—which is why, after pressure from advocates, the city has begun to transfer up to 1,000 homeless individuals per week to hotel units. On May 19, the City Council is also expected to hold an emergency vote on a bill to offer hotel rooms to all homeless individuals living in shelters, in subways, and on the streets.
“They say stay six feet apart, [but] we sleep three feet apart… so how can I stay six feet apart from somebody?” says a resident of Brooklyn’s Magnolia Shelter who preferred to remain anonymous. “There’s a small TV room, there’s 10, 20 people sitting in this TV room two feet away from each other.”
Given the current situation in shelters, homeless individuals are placed in an even more dire situation. What happens to those who would rather remain on the streets?
“The city could have, for example, offered blankets to people on the street,” Hughes says about what he observed on the night of May 6. “[But] there was literally no tangible thing for people to obtain from outreach: no blankets, no hand sanitizer, no masks, there were no socks… there was nothing for outreach workers to provide people to get through the night.
“It’s a policing operation, outreach [is] part of it, but it’s a policing operation to clear the subways and push people into one direction or into the shadows,” Hughes adds. “It’s not an operation intended to help people.”
Anthony Williams, a 67-year-old homeless New Yorker who is now staying in a hotel, had been sleeping on the subway as of a few weeks ago, but he was able to get a hotel room for himself through funds from a GoFundMe campaign organized by the Urban Justice Center.
Though he was already staying in a hotel room, Williams spent some time on the trains on the night of May 6, the first night of the shutdown, to see what was going on.
“I was talking with people and they were like, ‘I don’t know know what I want to do,’” he says. Their situation hasn’t changed, Williams, points out. “They’re still homeless, they’re still on the streets.
“For them, that’s their safe haven, the subway, because it’s public,” he adds. “It has a safety to itself.”