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No Virus Tracking for Homeless People on Streets and Subways

A homeless encampment on the side of the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown.
A homeless encampment on the side of the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown, March 27, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Hidden in plain sight between a children’s playground and the stream of traffic into Brooklyn, a homeless encampment sits hard by the Manhattan Bridge.

Three makeshift “bedrooms” allow residents to hunker down for the night under an open sky, just a few feet from one another. There’s no sink or soap to follow the city’s wash-your-hands admonition and no sign of hand sanitizer. A pale blue surgical mask lies in the dirt.

A table in one of the bedrooms includes a paperback copy of “Birth of Tragedy,” by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

In the time of coronavirus, this encampment lies outside the reach of the frantic effort to contain an illness that had killed more than 770 New York City residents as of Sunday afternoon. And as the virus spreads, it’s touching the ranks of New Yorkers who live outdoors, bedding down on sidewalks and subways.

A homeless man camps out in Times Square during the height of the coronavirus outbreak.
A man camps out in Times Square on March 24, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Last week, only one unsheltered person had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, according to city officials. By Saturday, there were four — three of whom remain hospitalized.

As for the rest of the estimated 3,200 New Yorkers living on the streets and in subways, keeping tabs on where they are or on who is infected is proving a steep challenge.

The city has stopped tracking down close contacts of those who have COVID-19 as the number of those infected skyrockets, so there is no account of who these four unsheltered individuals had contact with in the days before they tested positive.

Meanwhile, police are breaking up encampments around the boroughs, THE CITY has learned.

“This population is finding it remarkably difficult to do the things they’re being told to do,” said Josh Dean of HumanNYC, a group that presses to house the unsheltered homeless. “The general guidance is to stay at home and wash your hands and unsheltered homeless people can’t do that.”

‘A Dangerous Environment’

For homeless people living in city shelters, it’s different.

The city Department of Homeless Services has created a containment system: They isolate those who test positive, close contacts of those who test positive and those with symptoms who are elderly or have pre-existing conditions.

As of Friday, 70 homeless individuals in 45 shelters across the city had tested positive for the virus. Two have died.

The rest were either hospitalized, transferred to hotel rooms being used as isolation wards, or had returned to live with family or friends.

As of Friday, DHS had placed 122 individuals in the hotel room isolation wards, including roommates of those who’ve tested positive. DHS officials said the people are being monitored for symptoms and would be transported to a hospital if necessary.

Not so with homeless people who live on the streets and subways.

A homeless person sleeps on an E train.
A person sleeps on an E train, March 10, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Since March 1, when the first city resident tested positive for the virus, hundreds of city street-team outreach workers who regularly interact with homeless people have kept an eye out for those with potential symptoms.

By Friday, these workers had logged more than 7,000 interactions and tagged 12 people for transport to public hospitals. None have tested positive.

The four who were infected had no interaction with the outreach teams, but visited city-run drop-in centers on their own.

As THE CITY reported on March 22, with many public restrooms shut down, including those in public plazas, the homeless have thronged these centers for showers and meals, creating overcrowded conditions in already cramped spaces.

“They’re pushed into drop-in centers that are struggling, but are also a dangerous environment for the spread of this virus,” Craig Hughes of the nonprofit Urban Justice Center told THE CITY. “The [city government] could offer folks on the street a hotel room. But because it’s not their priority, there are thousands of people who are street homeless who are either crowding the drop-ins or going deeper into the parks.”

Street Sweeps

This is happening in part because of a tactic employed by the NYPD: the street sweep.

Over the last few days, cops have rousted homeless from several areas where they are known to congregate, according to witnesses and notices posted. On Friday, it was the streets around Penn Station.

On Monday, a sweep is set for a corner of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. On Tuesday, one is planned for East 59th Street and First Avenue, according to the notices. A spokesperson for the NYPD did not respond to THE CITY’s questions about the scope of this initiative.

In each case NYPD put up flyers ahead of time warning, “You must leave this location along with your belongings.”

A homeless encampment on the side of the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown.
A homeless encampment on the side of the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown, March 27, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Isaac McGinn, a DHS spokesperson, insisted New York City does not have the tent city encampments found in San Francisco and Los Angeles — but if an encampment does emerge, the city moves to shut it down.

Those who refuse to comply can be arrested, though usually the notice is enough to get people to leave the area, homeless advocates say.

‘Don’t Move People’

Advocates for the homeless contend that police sweeps defeat the purpose of shelter-in-place by essentially just moving individuals from one spot to another.

That’s contrary to the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has told cities to avoid sweeps unless housing can be offered on the spot.

“What they’re doing is what the CDC is advising not to do, which is don’t move people around,” Dean said. “The more you move people around, the more you move the disease around.”

He noted the people who live on the street and are in many cases afraid to stay in city shelters are particularly vulnerable in this health crisis. Many have underlying medical issues and an estimated 40% are over 50.

As of Sunday, 95% of the 678 New York City residents who’d died due to COVID-19 were 45 or older.

Dean and other advocates, including Homeless Services United and the Coalition for the Homeless, have been urging City Hall to provide hotel rooms for unsheltered individuals.

DHS has said it’s procured 500 “isolation” units around the city, but the advocates said as of this weekend only 110 were actually available.

“They’re really slowly opening hotel rooms and not in significant numbers that would allow them to offer hotels to every homeless person on the street,” said Giselle Routhier, director of the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless. “We need to get to that point, which could happen because there are thousands of empty hotel rooms” right now.

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