Before COVID-19, life in the HELP Meyer men’s shelter on Wards Island could often be hostile, according to Alphonso Syville, who has lived there for the last decade. 

But since the start of the pandemic, he said, whatever camaraderie existed among residents has all but evaporated, replaced by paranoia. 

Residents say they are left in the dark about how many — or which — of them have become ill from coronavirus. Instead, they hear about cases through word of mouth. 

“They’re definitely not telling us anything,” Syville said. “And it’s very scary.”

New York’s nursing homes, adult homes, the New York City Housing Authority and correctional facilities have all disclosed some details about the number of coronavirus infections and deaths in individual facilities, following public pressure put on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Yet unlike the government agencies overseeing those living arrangements, the city Department of Homeless Services has not divulged those figures for specific shelters, releasing only information about the entire system. 

That’s left workers and residents in a state of fear and uncertainty. 

Last week, the Coalition for the Homeless issued an analysis that found that New Yorkers experiencing homelessness are dying from COVID-19 at a rate 61% higher than the general population. The study cites pre-existing health challenges, the cramped environment of large-scale congregate shelters and a lack of targeted testing as factors.

Homeless people were packed into the 30th Street Men’s Shelter in Manhattan. Credit: Obtained by THE CITY

Meanwhile, THE CITY’s analysis of DHS data between April 12 to June 14 found that the number of homeless shelters with more than one confirmed case of COVID-19 grew 60%. The number of cases increased 167%, suggesting clusters in some facilities. Multiple cases have been recorded in about 200 of the city’s 450 shelters.

Overall, 85 homeless shelter residents have died of COVID-19 as of June 14, per the city’s count. Physicians and other healthcare professionals in New York City have questioned the scope of the city’s available data on the magnitude of coronavirus disease among people without homes. 

“Every life lost to this unprecedented pandemic is a tragedy – and we mourn each and every individual we serve who passed away to this virus over the past three months,” said Isaac McGinn, a spokesperson for the city Department of Homeless Services. 

Some Sent to Hotels

Since the start of the pandemic, DHS has confirmed through testing 1,012 coronavirus infections in the city’s shelter system — the vast majority of them in the dorm-like facilities housing about 17,500 single adults.

McGinn said on Thursday that within those shelters — where rooms housing eight to 12 residents are common — 840 cases occurred across approximately 100 shelters. 

That leaves about 170 cases in as many family shelters, according to THE CITY’s analysis. 

Said McGinn: “We’re confident that our strategies for combating COVID-19 and protecting the 60,000-plus New Yorkers we serve on any given night have effectively flattened our curve, which has closely tracked citywide trends, and minimized the tragic toll.”

Among the city’s efforts: The Department of Homeless Services had placed just over 11,000 people in hotels as of last weekend — many of them two to a room, prioritizing seniors over age 70 and those living in shelters deemed “overcrowded” by the city.

But the limited systemwide statistics disclosed by DHS indicate that infections within shelters grow at a pace similar to citywide trends.

‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Since April 24, a 20-story Upper East Side hotel has temporarily housed hundreds of residents of shelters operated for the city by the Doe Fund, which connects residents to employment via a workforce development program.

But just as before the move, news of infections remains shrouded in a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” according to a shelter employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In late March, when one of the Doe Fund’s shelters was still operating out of its Upper Manhattan location, a resident who exhibited COVID-19 symptoms was temporarily isolated before his transfer to a medical facility, the employee said. He passed away a month later, according to the employee.

The man’s 10 roommates, like all residents of the shelter, cycled in and out each day to their jobs in construction, landscaping and industrial cleaning, work deemed “essential” during the pandemic.

None of them were informed of their potential exposure to coronavirus, the employee said.

“It’s not an open dialogue of ‘This is what we’re doing, these are the guys who have tested positive, we’re gonna make sure that we contact those guy’s roommates so they can get tested,’” the employee said. “That is not happening.”

A spokesperson for the Doe Fund declined to comment, saying, “We are bound by the HIPAA rules protecting clients’ privacy rights when it comes to health and medical issues.”

‘A Disaster’

Advocates for the homeless say that more transparency is needed — along with information residents can act on.

“I think people absolutely have a right to that information and should know that there have been COVID-19 cases in their shelters,” said Helen Strom, an organizer with the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center.

“On the other hand, it is also really important that we should be providing people safe, private non-congregate settings such as private hotel rooms or housing, because just knowing that someone in your shelter has COVID-19 only goes so far if you have nowhere safe to go.”

Public health experts say that long standing health care disadvantages among the poor and crowded conditions at many single adult shelters in the city have contributed to the disproportionate mortality rate among the homeless.

“We knew that shelters were going to be an incredible risk factor for contracting COVID-19,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California, San Francisco. 

“You’ve got all of these people, they’re crowded in, really close to one another, there’s zero opportunity for social distancing,” she added. “We knew this was going to be a disaster.”

Chris Pierson, 31, has been staying at the Armory Men’s Shelter on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, June 12, 2020. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Residents of the city’s largest intake shelters for men, the Bedford-Atlantic Armory in Brooklyn and the 30th Street Men’s Shelter in Manhattan, described grim environments. 

“The conditions are worse than jail here,” said Edward Costa, 37, who has lived at the 30th Street Shelter since December. “My bed is four feet from the guy next to me.”

“People that have been sick in the shelter are the ones who’ve been targeted” by staff, said Chris Pierson, a Bedford-Atlantic Armory resident. “‘Get out of here, don’t come back. You’re sick, don’t come back,’ stuff like that.”

A Vulnerable Population

While the average life expectancy for homeless people is 64, roughly one-third of adults residing in the city’s homeless shelters are 65 or older, making them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. But that’s far from the population’s only risk factor.

Homeless shelter residents may not be able to wash their hands as frequently as needed “due to lack of soap, shared bathrooms, and inoperable fixtures,” according to the Coalition for the Homeless, and may live in crowded spaces without “the necessary levels of cleaning and sanitation.” 

Other research has shown the strain of prolonged homelessness makes people age faster: For example, homeless people develop certain geriatric illnesses, like heart disease, in their 50s as opposed to when they are 75 or older, a recent study found. 

Studies have also observed obstructive pulmonary disease prevalence between 20-30%, compared to 10% for the general adult population.

These are illnesses, public health experts note, overrepresented in poor communities and among people of color, particularly blacks and Latinos.

A man enters the Bedford-Atlantic Armory shelter during the coronavirus outbreak, May 15, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In New York City, 89% of people sleeping in shelters are black or Latino, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

“Diseases like diabetes, which is a huge risk factor for death with COVID-19, is a disease of poverty and racism. Likewise respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension,” said Kushel.

The Coalition’s study refers to a 2017 survey conducted by the Department of Homeless Services that estimates 67% of all single adults sleeping in the shelter system have some type of disability. More than one in three participants reported a condition requiring medical equipment.

“These underlying health conditions and disabilities likely place homeless New Yorkers at particular risk for complications should they contract COVID-19,” according to the Coalition for the Homeless’ study.

What’s more, New York’s homeless population is aging: In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, there were over 15,000 homeless people over 50.

That population is poised to increase to 25,000 within the next decade, according to a study published last year.

‘Like We Don’t Count’

Back on Wards Island, Syville said, people get harassed for as much as sneezing. He’s had his room to himself since his roommate was transferred to a hotel in May, though he shares a bathroom with about 15 other people.

HELP USA, a city-contracted nonprofit founded 30 years ago by now-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Syville believes the shelter should be upfront about how many residents are getting sick — and how many are dying — of COVID-19. 

“That information is definitely needed,” he said. “It would be better to keep it real, that way we know.”

His tone grew sorrowful as he described spending hours of his day alone in his room, fearful of getting sick.

“It makes us feel like we ain’t nobody,” Syville said. “Like we don’t count in the world. Like our lives don’t matter, like homeless lives don’t matter.”