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Cast Adrift by the Virus, the Newly Homeless Seek a Place to Recover

A sign directs people to the entrance of a Department of Homeless Services-run shelter. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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For four days, Luis endured a fever, a headache — and a cough that brought him to his knees.

An ER doctor at Long Island’s Northwell Hospital delivered the diagnosis for the otherwise healthy “fitness freak,” a construction worker in his early 30s: COVID-19.

Back in the Nassau County home where he rented a room, his landlady had “a meltdown” at the news, according to Luis, who asked that his last name be withheld.

Concerned about her health and that of her unborn child, she gave him $400 for a motel room and told him to never return.

Luis’ doctor had recommended that he rest at home and take Tylenol for his fever.

Instead, he slept in his car at a 7-Eleven parking lot that weekend, with only the vehicle’s heater for comfort in the freezing rain. The clothes on his back, his hospital discharge papers and his phone were all he had.

“I was sobbing in my car,” Luis recalled in Spanish. “I felt hopeless, I felt like I was thrown out on the street, like, where do I go from here?”

City’s New Policy

Luis had joined a new tribe of the profoundly alone — sick with coronavirus and cast out from their home.

Ill and desperate, they end up on the street, like Luis — or in homeless shelters, not knowing when, or if, they can return home.

An internal city Department of Homeless Services email obtained by THE CITY shows shelter system administrators retooling to admit clients who have become temporarily or permanently homeless for reasons related to COVID-19 — including people who have become sick.

Meanwhile, the city Office of Emergency Management is also stepping in to house the sick who can’t stay at home.

Hospital patients who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and don’t have a place to go after discharge are isolated in hotel rooms provided by the city, according to Omar Bourne, a Office of Emergency Management spokesperson.

As with the homeless shelter isolations, they stay for seven days after the onset of symptoms, and until they’ve been three days without fever and are feeling better, according to new protocols THE CITY obtained Monday.

“This includes anyone who cannot return to their homes for being sick with COVID-19,” Bourne told THE CITY.

OEM is responsible for quarantining patients who have not lived in a city homeless shelter in the past year. Meanwhile, DHS clients are placed in that agency’s isolation units — many of them within homeless shelters — before they are transferred to hotel rooms for quarantine, according to new protocols.

Bourne said OEM has provided isolation rooms for at least 100 discharged hospital patients since March 18.

On Wednesday, Health + Hospitals CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz announced that an additional 10,000 beds in 20 hotels would be made available to patients who are sick enough to need medical care and support services, but not for isolation after they’ve recovered.

Housing as Health Care

Longtime advocates for the homeless in New York see parallels with the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, during which many people — predominantly LGBT or with substance abuse disorder — became homeless.

Since 1985, the city has provided housing aid to low-income people with HIV-related illness, through the HIV/AIDS Service Administration, or HASA.

Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy at the Coalition for the Homeless, said that both public health crises underscore the need for securing safe, isolated housing for those at risk of illness.

“‘HASA for all’ is all about ending the AIDS epidemic and flattening the curve, providing private housing to prevent the transmission of the HIV virus,” Nortz told THE CITY. “And now we’re talking about flattening the curve and providing private housing for those at risk all over again, to stop the spread of this deadly virus.”

Charles King, executive director of Housing Works, recalled a call he received from an administrator of the AIDS program at Mount Sinai Hospital several weeks ago.

The administrator was seeking services for four COVID-19-positive patients living with someone who refused to let them back into their home.

“As in the peak of the AIDS epidemic,” King said, “we have sick homeless people who are being turned away from every door.”

Homeless Services workers have sounded the alarm for a potential contagion disaster in the city’s shelters.

“If sick people are coming into shelter because they were evicted from other places, that’s really rough. If these are street homeless, that’s really rough. If it’s people leaving because they want to protect their families, that’s really rough,” a DHS worker speaking on the condition of anonymity told THE CITY.

As of Monday, 120 residents across 60 city shelter locations had contracted COVID-19. Four have died.

Hotel Rooms Demanded

New York City has a right to shelter established in a legal settlement, meaning that the city cannot deny a person’s request for shelter for any reason, even if that person is sick.

Unlike families, most of the city’s homeless singles who seek shelter end up in congregate sites, crowded rooms with eight to 12 other people sleeping mere feet apart.

“The world has changed now, we live in a world where pandemics are likely to happen again and again,” Nortz told THE CITY. “We need to provide people with spaces to be inside, to be able to isolate and be safe, not in cots in a dormitory that are only three feet apart.”

Homelesness advocates suggest vacating congregate sites as much as possible and isolating the homeless in the city’s vacant hotel rooms.

It’s not a novel concept: California and London have handed off empty hotel rooms to some of their homeless neighbors as the virus spreads throughout the globe.

In New York, now the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, 83% of the city’s 107,000 hotel rooms remain vacant. An estimated 3,500 homeless people live on streets and subways, while another 58,000 reside in city shelters.

“We should be offering everyone who is in a congregate setting or in the street an empty hotel room,” Helen Strom, an organizer with the Urban Justice Center told THE CITY. “Like, tomorrow.”

Avery Cohen, a City Hall spokesperson, told THE CITY: “There are no plans at this point to move every single person residing in a traditional shelter to a hotel.”

‘A Hazard to the Public’

After two days in his car, Luis, who came to the U.S. last year from Honduras, contacted his legal representative and some activist acquaintances to tell them his story.

Christina Rosalin Peña, an Anti-Violence Project staffer who represents Luis in his ongoing asylum case, was horrified by what she heard.

“There’s just no way, he’s not gonna recover from coronavirus in a car,” Peña told THE CITY. “And it’s not just for his sake: He’s a hazard to the public.”

While Peña dealt with the hospital on Luis’ behalf, advocates quickly fund-raised and secured him a short-term rental in the city.

But the place is only available for the remainder of Luis’ 14-day quarantine period — and he has no idea where he’ll go next once he recovers.

“The landlady thinks that since there is no cure for the virus, I’ll have it forever,” Luis explained, his voice hoarse and weak. “So I’m asking myself the same thing, wondering if I can go back to my old place again.”

Peña recalled the conversation she had with a county health department representative on the day she found out Luis was homeless. She explained his situation and begged the woman on the other line to give Luis a bed, to no avail.

In the background, when she apparently thought Peña wasn’t listening, the woman huffed: “He’s gonna have to figure it out on his own.”

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