Helena Hill, a 56-year-old New Yorker, was living in a College Point, Queens, homeless shelter when the pandemic hit. She had been staying there since December, in a room with 12 other women — and sharing a bathroom, a cafeteria, and common areas — where it was nearly impossible to practice social distancing.
Hill began exhibiting some coronavirus symptoms in late March; she remembers feeling achy, her back hurting, and having a fever (though she wasn’t tested at that time, it was recently determined that she has antibodies). Around the same time, there was a fire drill in the shelter, during which it was even more difficult to practice any kind of social distancing. Afterward, many of the shelter’s residents headed over to a crowded cafeteria. “It was just chaos,” she says.
Hill recovered from the virus, but not all New Yorkers living in the shelter system were so lucky.
While the overall New York City mortality rate from COVID-19 was 200 deaths per 100,000 people, for New Yorkers staying in homeless shelters it was 61 percent higher than that as of June 1, a recent analysis conducted by nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless found.
And as of June 15, 85 homeless individuals sleeping in the city’s shelter system have passed away because of complications from COVID-19. In total, there have been 1,012 confirmed cases among around 200 shelter locations, 745 of which have been resolved, according to the Department of Homeless Services (DHS).
When the virus began rapidly spreading among the city’s shelter system (which houses over 60,000 individuals) in early April, several advocacy organizations began to call on the de Blasio administration to transfer people from congregate shelters to 30,000 of the city’s 80,000 empty hotel rooms. The mayor’s office initially said it would transfer around 2,000 individuals to hotels in total, and it wasn’t until the last week of April that the city began to transfer up to 1,000 people per week to hotel rooms.
Hill says she was transferred — along with everyone else in her shelter, including staff — on May 19, to a Holiday Inn in Queens, where she has a room for herself. “I think this is so much better for everyone because you have control over your environment. I don’t have a shared bathroom, [and] with respect to the meals, we go downstairs and we can pick up our meals ... I think everyone is much happier here, and maybe they’re healthier here as well,” she says.
But the transfer was too little, too late for many. Hill recalls hearing about shelter residents — even some who had slept in her room — dying from the virus. As the City notes in a recent report, shelter residents weren’t informed of the number of cases in their shelters, unlike what’s been done with nursing homes, public housing, and correctional facilities.
As of June 14, around 13,000 sheltered individuals are now staying in commercial-hotel units, the DHS says, though 3,500 of them had already been staying there before the pandemic, and the Coalition for the Homeless report found that the majority of those individuals who have been transferred are in double-occupancy rooms.
And for unsheltered homeless individuals, the situation continues to be harrowing: Those who slept in subway cars and stations overnight are now escorted out by police and outreach workers for the trains to be sanitized. Often, the only option for people kicked off the trains is to either find a place on the streets or go to a crowded intake shelter. According to the DHS, eight unsheltered homeless individuals have passed away, and there have been 58 confirmed coronavirus cases in total so far.
But that number may be much higher, as the Coalition for the Homeless report notes, because of delays in reporting and the fact that the unsheltered population is known to suffer underlying health conditions.
“Government responses to the pandemic at every level have been far too slow and have led to unnecessary chaos for those sleeping in shelters, on the streets, and on the subway,” Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy at Coalition for the Homeless, said in a statement. “If New York wants to emerge from COVID-19 and move toward recovery, the City and State must take immediate measures to address the disparate toll the coronavirus has taken on New Yorkers who are homeless.”
Even before the pandemic, the city was facing a homelessness and affordability crisis, which has now been greatly exacerbated. And many individuals, like Hill, who has been continuously staying in shelters since 2018, don’t have the options they need to make it out of the system.
In Hill’s case, she has been working in different places, including with the MTA in Access-a-Ride, and even decided to advance her education, aside from her Hunter College bachelor’s degree, by completing a network-engineering course. But she has been told repeatedly that she doesn’t qualify for rental assistance — one time, when she was making around $45,000 a year, she learned she didn’t qualify because her salary was too high. She feels like she hasn’t gotten the aid she needs to get back on her feet.
“What I had wanted to do was to get in and get out [of the shelter system], and I feel like I’m on flypaper — I just can’t,” Hill says. “I’ve done what I’m supposed to do, and I can’t get out.”