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The convoy arrived in the chilly Manhattan darkness around 1:30 a.m.: vehicles pulling up one after the other outside 30th Street Men’s Shelter, the city’s biggest refuge for homeless New Yorkers.
The passengers who emerged at this temporary bus stop all shared the same story: They’d just been expelled from the subway during the system’s new daily 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. COVID-19 scrubdown.
Advocates question why, of all the places the city could bring these men, the Department of Homeless Services chose one of the most crowded shelters — one where social distancing has proved a major challenge, spurring efforts to reduce the headcount there.
“I can’t think of a worse place than 30th Street,” said Josh Dean, director of the nonprofit homeless support group Human NYC. “How dangerous is it to take these people off the subway and put them in this one place?”
As THE CITY has documented, the 850-bed shelter in Kips Bay has struggled to cope with the many challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Located on First Avenue next door to Bellevue Hospital, the shelter serves as the main intake center for single men in a system that houses 56,000 to 58,000 individuals each night.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has touted an “amazing” number of homeless who’ve agreed to spend the night in city-run shelters during the indefinite overnight subway shutdown.
But advocates for the homeless contend the mayor’s declarations do not make clear that the homeless on trains and in stations are simply being relocated to potentially dangerous conditions within shelters.
‘Lives are at Stake’
Giselle Routhier, policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless, said her group has pressed City Hall to instead move these unsheltered New Yorkers into the “isolation hotels” the de Blasio administration has booked to temporarily house COVID-positive people with nowhere else to go.
“It is flat out dangerous and disingenuous of the mayor to transport unhoused people to congregate shelters where COVID-19 is actively spreading,” Routhier said. “People’s lives are at stake and he refuses to provide available empty hotel rooms to people experiencing homelessness.”
Workers at the 30th Street shelter have for weeks struggled to enforce social distancing.
DHS staff and peace officers there say they’ve had to make do without enough proper protective gear, and several have tested positive for the virus, according to workers who spoke to THE CITY on the condition of anonymity. In March, a supervisor at the shelter who was believed to be presumed positive passed away.
The pressure at 30th Street has increased since the New York City Transit Authority shut down subways overnight for cleaning and disinfecting starting May 6.
An estimated 2,000 men and women who had sought refuge on trains and in stations were left to fend for themselves amid unseasonably cold temperatures, with many hunkering down on streets and in city buses.
Each night, outreach workers hired by DHS approach these individuals at the end of subway lines and offer to transport them to shelters or hospitals. Most have declined, but a total of 479 agreed to go to shelters on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, according to DHS.
An outreach worker involved in the subway effort told THE CITY that on Tuesday, of the 130 “engagements” performed that night by the non-profit that employed the worker, 64 wound up carted off to the Bellevue shelter.
A Traffic Jam
Dean described the scene early Thursday morning outside the shelter at the corner of E. 30th Street and First Avenue, where he said vehicle after vehicle pulled up: a yellow school bus, multiple blue-and-white Access-A-Ride minivans, and so many Citicare minibuses they created a traffic jam.
“They were coming from every direction,” he said of the caravan. “They would just drop people off like it was a bus stop. People were just meandering off.”
Dean said several of the men refused to go inside, aware of the shelter’s reputation for violence, compounded by adverse conditions for social distancing. At one point, Dean said, a man emerged from a Citicare van and started yelling at the driver, “You guys didn’t tell me you were bringing me here. I’m not going into Bellevue.”
The sudden exodus to the Bellevue shelter seems to contradict DHS’ recent campaign to reduce the population there after complaints emerged about overcrowded cafeterias and elevators packed with residents who weren’t wearing face coverings.
Since the first New York City resident tested positive for the virus March 1, the coronavirus has jumped from shelter to shelter.
As of Friday, more than 882 homeless had tested positive and 73 had died. In response, DHS has been sending residents — particularly elderly residents and those with compromised immune systems — to the isolation hotels.
A ‘Brand New Initiative’
As of last week, DHS had moved 250 individuals out of 30th Street to hotels. On Friday, Isaac McGinn, a DHS spokesperson, did not answer THE CITY’s emailed questions about how many men have wound up at the shelter because of the subway shutdown.
“We’re building out this brand new initiative, including most effective tracking/reporting, as we develop and stand up this strategy overnight,” he wrote. “And we are continuing to analyze the preliminary data that we received and reported for additional insights.”
McGinn said the DHS-contracted outreach teams logged hundreds of interactions with the homeless during the first three days of subway closure, with hundreds agreeing to go to shelters.
That’s in contrast to times past when most of those approached decline to come off the street because they fear what they see as the violent and chaotic conditions at many shelters.
“Making a transition off the streets is a courageous and life-changing choice for those New Yorkers who may have been living unsheltered for some time,” McGinn wrote.
“Someone who accepts a referral to a shelter placement may have second thoughts or may not be ready to do so when they get there – but accepting that referral and getting there is a first step and one we will build on as we keep coming back to offer that helping hand,” he added.
The overnight closure of the subway system came amid troubling incidents on trains and plummeting ridership.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo late last month called images of homeless filling the subways “disgusting,” and on Saturday said, “Society does nobody any favors saying you can sleep on a train all night.”
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