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De Blasio Vows to Break Up NYC Homeless Shelter Crowds

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

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Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed changes Friday after THE CITY revealed how homeless men ejected from the subways during overnight cleanups wound up packed together sleeping on shelter floors.

Photos obtained by THE CITY showed some 20 men jammed together in a waiting area of the Bellevue Men’s Shelter on 30th Street in Manhattan, slumbering practically on top of one other. Another photo depicted multiple men asleep in chairs in the entrance lobby of the Schwartz Assessment Center on Ward’s Island.

During his daily news conference Friday, de Blasio said he hadn’t seen the pictures, but that he had been briefed by his staff about the social distancing nightmares.

“It sounds absolutely unacceptable, and that’s not something we’re going to allow,” he said. “We’re all trying to deal with an unprecedented situation, but that is clearly not acceptable, and the people who work there have to do better, and if they need help we have to get them help.”

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

Since the subways began shutting down from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. May 6, thousands of people who usually sleep on the trains have been expelled into the night.

City-contracted outreach workers have offered help to individuals removed from trains and stations at the ends of the lines. Of the 824 people who accepted rides to shelters during the first week of the shutdown, 201 actually stayed overnight, according to figures the mayor released Thursday.

The effort resulted in busloads of men carted to the Bellevue and the Schwartz Assessment shelters over the last 10 days. On several nights, workers say, the men were forced to sleep under extremely crowded conditions because there weren’t enough beds for them

‘Heartbreaking’ Scenes

Councilmember Keith Powers (D-Manhattan), whose district includes the 30th Street shelter, said he reached out to the Department of Homeless Services for an explanation. As of Friday afternoon, he’d received no response.

“Obviously, I was very disheartened to see the picture of these men sleeping on the steps and not being able to socially distance themselves,” he said. “We’ve been reaching out to DHS to have a clear understanding about what’s happening there. And so far I have not heard back.”

The plan to shut down the subways overnight was discussed for days before it kicked off. The sprawling transit system has been used for years as a refuge by homeless people fearful of city shelters.

The city has been moving some New Yorkers from homeless shelters to isolation hotels, but apparently not at a rapid enough clip to make room for the influx of newcomers.

During the mayor’s news conference, Department of Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks, who oversees the city’s shelter system, deemed the circumstances “unacceptable” and promised protocol changes.

“Those photographs, to me, are heartbreaking. They don’t represent our work, and we have to do better and we will do better,” he said.

HRA Commissioner Steven Banks speaks at a press conference about the spread of the coronavirus.
Department of Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks speaks at a news conference about the spread of the coronavirus, March 2, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

He said the city had just “refined” the process of checking in individuals seeking shelter “to make it more streamlined, efficient, ensuring that the staff have what they need.”

Since the virus began casting its shadow across New York in early March, the city has struggled to contain its spread within the massive shelter system. As THE CITY has documented, in many big shelters, such as Bellevue and Schwartz, crowded conditions have made that effort difficult.

Banks said the city has moved dozens of men out of the Bellevue Shelter to hotels and other shelters to free up space within the huge 850-bed facility, and he promised “we’ll do more so that we can make sure that when clients come to us we can promote social distancing.”

Isaac McGinn, a DHS spokesperson, said the agency has added staff to the shelters to handle the late night subway arrivals. DHS also has begun soliciting intake information on subway platforms before transporting individuals to the shelters to speed up the entry process, he said.

He also said the agency is “making triply sure” staff have adequate face masks for themselves and clients who show up.

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