clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Homeless Sent from Subways to Social Distancing Nightmares

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

Need to know more about coronavirus in New York? Sign up for THE CITY’s daily morning newsletter.


It’s around 2 o’clock in the morning and the beige marble lobby of the 30th Street Men’s Shelter in Manhattan has filled up with more than 20 homeless men just expelled from the city’s subways, trying to get some sleep.

They are, to put it charitably, on top of one another.

One man lies flat on his back on the marble. Seven are curled in fetal position all around one another like petals on a flower, close enough to inhale each other’s breath. One has commandeered two seats for a bed, while another man sits upright nearby, clutching his backpack.

A slumbering individual wears red-plaid pajamas, but has no blanket. Most of the men are asleep, clad in hoodies and winter jackets.

A recent overnight scene from the 30th Street Men's shelter near Bellevue Hospital.
A recent overnight scene from the 30th Street Men’s shelter near Bellevue Hospital.
Obtained by THE CITY

Everybody keeps their shoes on. Few wear face coverings.

This was the scene inside the city’s biggest homeless shelter this week shortly after the subways were shut down nightly for a 1 a.m.-to-5 a.m. COVID-19-triggered scrubdown.

“It’s inhumane,” said Derek Jackson, director of the law enforcement division for Teamsters Local 237, which represents Department of Homeless Services peace officers.

Video Tells the Story

A similar scene played out yesterday morning at the Schwartz Assessment Facility on Ward’s Island, where a video obtained by THE CITY shows a dozen homeless men sleeping upright on chairs in the entrance lobby after they were tossed out of the subways.

“Directly in front of me and spread out is a bunch of guys laid out everywhere, laid out on the floor. Some of them are propped up against the wall. It’s really terrible,” said a worker who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The worker added the situation has been getting worse since the subway shutdown began May 6.

Homeless people were packed into a waiting area at the Schwartz Assessment Shelter on Wards Island during the coronavirus outbreak.
Homeless people in a waiting area at the Schwartz Assessment Shelter on Wards Island
Obtained by THE CITY

Jackson reported much the same at 30th Street, where DHS has been dropping off dozens of men each night at the shelter, near Bellevue Hospital.

Because there’s not enough room there, they’re placed in a holding area, where they stay for four to six hours. Then they’re told to leave, and they return to the streets, he said.

“There’s no thermometer readings of clients or staff,” Jackson said. “That’s a big problem for these officers. They don’t know if these people are COVID positive.”

‘Absolutely Inappropriate’

To date, 87 of 450 active DHS peace officers working in city-run homeless shelters have tested positive for coronavirus, Jackson said. There have been no fatalities so far.

Since the coronavirus began spreading across New York City in early March, more than 900 homeless New Yorkers have tested positive for the virus — including 75 who have died.

A Department of Homeless Services spokesperson had a different version of events of the scene at men’s shelter, contending it took place after a bus had arrived with subway refugees, along with other homeless men seeking shelter. He said everyone got a room.

“This was an absolutely inappropriate situation that we remedied immediately, taking steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” said the spokesperson, Isaac McGinn.

The city sends outreach workers to the ends of the subway lines each night. There they offer the thousands of individuals who usually ride overnight a bus trip to a city shelter or hospital.

Each night since the overnight shut-down started, groups of men have agreed to be brought to those shelters, according to DHS, totaling 116 to 183 a night.

Not all have stayed after drop-off. Many have simply turned around and walked away upon arrival, fearful of contracting the virus inside crowded shelters.

Citicare vans line up to drop off homeless men at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter during subway shutdown, May 6, 2020.
Citicare vans line up to drop off homeless men at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter during subway shutdown, May 6, 2020.
Human NYC

On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that since the subway shutdown began last week, more than 824 homeless individuals have accepted a referral to shelter on at least one night. Of that number, 201 — fewer than 25% — actually stayed overnight in shelter, he said.

Figures obtained by THE CITY show that from May 3 to May 10, overlapping the first week of the overnight transit closures, just 124 out of 5,239 people encountered by police and outreach workers — both on the street and in the subways — stayed in a shelter for at least one night.

The data obtained by THE CITY comes from the Joint Command Center — a task force teaming the Department of Homeless Services and New York Police Department that was created in early 2019 to “enhance homeless outreach.” McGinn chalked up the discrepancies in the numbers to “different tracking” methods.

Even the smaller figures shown in the Joint Command Center records greatly surpass past numbers. On nights before the transit shutdown, outreach workers were typically able to convince only a small handful of the homeless with whom they interacted on streets and trains to come in on any given night.

Bused to Shelters

Sources familiar with the shelter system say the facilities have not been prepared for the unusually large number of these late-night arrivals and simply didn’t have enough beds to offer.

As a result, the men wind up congregating in clusters in lobbies and waiting rooms, spending the night on the cold floor or trying to sleep sitting upright in plastic chairs.

30th Street Men's Shelter
The 30th Street Men’s Shelter
Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

The subway shutdown has further complicated another City Hall effort: to reduce the number of homeless staying in shelters amid the pandemic. As THE CITY has documented, conditions at big shelters like Bellevue Men’s Shelter on 30th Street have made social distancing all but impossible.

The Department of Homeless Services has been transferring some residents out of the 850-bed shelter to hotels booked by the city — 250 in the last week. Meanwhile, scores of men ousted from the subways have been transported, via school buses, Access-A-Ride and Citicare vans, to the packed 30th Street facility.

On Wednesday, Department of Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks said that the Bellevue shelter was no longer the default drop-off spot for single men kicked out of the subway. Men are now being taken to other shelters such as the Schwartz Assessment Facility on Ward’s Island.

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.


SUPPORT THE CITY

You just finished reading another story from THE CITY.

We need your help to make THE CITY all it can be.

Please consider joining us as a member today.

DONATE TODAY!

SUPPORT LOCAL NEWS. SUPPORT NEW YORK.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit newsroom dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York. Please consider joining us as a member today.

GOT A TIP?

We’re here to listen. Email tips@thecity.nyc or visit our tips page for other ways to share.

Sign up for the newsletter Get THE CITY Scoop

Sign up and get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning