Earlier this summer, 30 homeless New Yorkers staying in free hotel rooms sponsored through a crowdfunding campaign were running out of time, money and patience.
Their lodging was being paid for by donors to “Homeless Can’t Stay Home,” launched in April as an answer to pandemic stay-at-home orders for people living on streets and subways.
Now the group has secured a promise from the city — kicked-started after a protest in front of a top de Blasio administration official’s home — to pay their hotel bills going forward, THE CITY has learned.
While details are still being hammered out, the homeless New Yorkers and their supporters are pushing for the free rooms to be extended to others in need.
“We know what’s best as people who have been in the system for years and years,” said Marcus Moore, 49, who’s been staying at a hotel on the Lower East Side since April.
The tentative deal followed months of private meetings, rallies, protests and City Council hearings as Moore and others staying in the hotels lobbied the city Department of Homeless Services to pick up their tab for the remainder of the pandemic.
Since April, DHS has relocated thousands of its homeless shelter residents into hotel rooms to stem the spread of the virus, anticipating the Federal Emergency Management Agency will help pay the bills.
But those accommodations weren’t available for the estimated 3,600 men and women who sleep in the city’s streets and subways — among them the 30 currently lodging in the crowd-funded hotel rooms.
A Trip to the Banks
As time dragged on, the $200,000 in campaign funds were evaporating, and the women and men supported by Homeless Can’t Stay Home risked ending up back on the streets.
“They weren’t listening,” Moore said of city officials. “And kept saying ‘No, no, no.’”
Angry and running out of options, they decided to meet DHS Commissioner Steven Banks where he lived: with an overnight “sleepover” protest in front of his Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, home on July 21.
“We said, ‘If they’re not gonna listen, we’re gonna go to Steve Banks’ house and make him listen,” Moore said.
Banks was apparently not home that night.
But two days later, the commissioner met with the group and said the agency would pay for the group’s hotel rooms going forward, according to a source inside DHS familiar with the negotiations.
The Department of Homeless Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Negotiations on details are still ongoing, according to multiple sources involved in the discussions.
Meanwhile, the 30 people living in the hotel rooms meet every Tuesday evening with organizers from the Urban Justice Center and other groups to strategize, by consensus, their proposals to DHS.
#HOMELESSCANTSTAYHOME— Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center (@SafetyNetUJC) July 21, 2020
Homeless people - housed for months in GoFundMe hotels and who will soon have nowhere to go but the streets - along w/ organizers in solidarity, are now at Commissioner Banks' home demanding @NYCDHS provide permanent housing.
It's a sleepover. pic.twitter.com/18sEMijx9E
The group is reluctant to welcome security guards on-site, as required in DHS homeless shelters. They also at one point feared their cases would be transferred to DHS social workers rather than remain with those that have been helping them so far.
For now, they’ll keep their current case managers and continue processing their housing applications, but details regarding on-site security at the hotels are still being worked out, the sources familiar with the negotiations said.
Filling the Gap, Fixing the Gap
The campaign’s demands for flexibility for people who declined to live in shelters build on a trend toward looser strictures within the city’s homeless services.
In recent years, DHS has tripled its inventory of informal and small-scale “Safe Havens” offering beds with fewer rules than in formal shelters. In December, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to add 1,000 new Safe Havens beds to a current inventory of 1,800.
Meanwhile, the group is pitching their current situation as “a new model” for homeless services, where people can live with relative independence and minimal surveillance or clinical intervention, similar to Safe Havens, they admit, while awaiting transition to independent housing.
“They don’t need to warehouse people,” Moore said, referring to the large-scale congregate settings that dominate the DHS system for single adults. “There’s no need to keep people in shelters anymore.”
Group members who spoke with THE CITY view the negotiations as a jumping-off point for additional requests to city leadership — including making the free isolation hotel rooms available to all people living on the streets and to expand affordable housing.
The negotiations come as the de Blasio administration is looking at a wider range of dealing with the housing crisis amid a pandemic that’s badly shaken the city’s economy and its safety net. As THE CITY reported in late June, officials are looking at converting newly struggling hotels into affordable housing.
‘We’re Putting in the Work’
The stability provided by life in the hotels — everyday pleasures like having a hot shower and a comfortable bed to sleep in — have made a significant improvement on their lives, say those who’ve moved in.
“I wake up in the morning and I don’t feel despair,” Jeff Wolford, a 33-year-old carpenter who has been without a home for the previous three years, told THE CITY in April. “When things don’t work out, I don’t feel as forlorn as I used to.”
With help from the campaign, Moore, who was kicked out of a vacant Far Rockaway house he’d occupied for the last three years just days before the coronavirus shutdown, got a housing voucher, his first in a lifetime of drifting in and out of homelessness.
So did Ashley Belcher and her partner Wiaheed “Nunu” Jefferson, who’d been living on a West 16th Street sidewalk before they were placed in a Midtown hotel in April.
Once off the street, Jefferson, who’d done odd repair and cleaning jobs before he and Belcher moved into a hotel, finally signed up for OSHA training, which ensured he could take construction work. Belcher, meanwhile, said that she’d like to one day become a journalist.
“I’m grateful for this opportunity and I won’t look back. I’m gonna keep it positive and keep a level head and look forward,” Jefferson said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “Now we have that foundation, we’re putting in the work as we speak.”