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Workers handling the possessions of homeless shelter residents being moved around to combat the spread of COVID-19 have resorted to donning plastic garbage bags to protect themselves from the virus.
A half-dozen employees who tackled the job at a Brooklyn storage facility have contracted the disease — and one died, according to union leader Kyle Simmons, who charged the city hasn’t provided the workers with protective gear.
“If you are afraid and if they don’t supply you with the stuff they’re supposed to supply you with, you do whatever is necessary to take care of yourself,” said Simmons, president of AFSCME DC 37 Local 924.
Multiple Staff Deaths
Meanwhile, officials confirmed to THE CITY on Wednesday that 28 employees at the city’s social welfare agencies — including the Department of Homeless Services, Department of Social Services and Human Resources Administration — have died due to COVID-19 complications.
The agencies are now tracking 343 cases of staff testing positive for the virus or presumed to be infected. Another 50 employees of non-profit shelter operators are also believed to be infected, though none have passed away, officials told THE CITY.
In the last two weeks, the Department of Homeless Services has moved more than 7,000 residents out of crowded single-adult shelters into hotel rooms that serve as isolation units. Many of these shelter residents are particularly vulnerable, among them the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions.
The exodus to isolation hotels and other housing comes as the virus has spread to nearly every shelter in a system that houses 56,000 people.
As of Tuesday, DHS reported more than 700 residents of New York’s homeless shelters have tested positive for the virus, including 69 who have died.
DHS is also trying to move these residents into permanent housing to create more space within shelters and end a steady, constant spread of COVID-19.
Part of the undertaking involves transporting residents’ belongings from one place to another. At times, the inventory of an individual’s possessions can be daunting, with some residents keeping multiple boxes in DHS’ storage facilities.
Boxes and Bins
At one such facility adjacent to the Barbara Kleiman Men’s Shelter in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, homeless people’s belongings are kept in stacks of boxes and bins.
Simmons said six of 45 employees working at that site, which includes a transportation depot and the union’s headquarters, have contracted the virus so far. One died, he said.
He noted that the workers recently watched as a resident was wheeled out of the Kleiman shelter next door on a stretcher wearing an oxygen mask. Shelter residents come and go from the storage facility, checking on their possessions or adding to them, he said.
Simmons noted that shelter residents often do not have access to adequate health care and sometimes struggle with medical issues. His members are fearful of being exposed to the virus, spurring him to repeatedly ask DHS to provide them protective outer clothing.
DHS refused his request, he said.
‘I’m a Human Being’
Last week, laborers assigned to transport yet another vanload of belongings from temporary housing at a Bronx apartment building to another site resorted to desperate measures: They bought a box of white plastic trash bags to wear as makeshift medical gowns as they trucked box after box to hotels and permanent housing where shelter residents are being transferred in droves.
“I understand that’s important with the first responders and all that, but I’m a human being,” Simmons said. “My life is as important as a policeman or a fireman or anybody.”
DHS, he said, insisted there was no need for protective clothing for workers moving belongings. He believes the city simply wasn’t ready for this crisis and doesn’t have any equipment to give out to his members.
“They were supposed to prepare for this a long time ago,” he said.
Isaac McGinn, a DHS spokesperson, said frontline city workers in shelters — including the workers hauling homeless people’s belongings — have been provided with face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. He added, “Guidance at this time does not recommend Tyvek suits or protective full-body coverings.”
The shelter laborers’ struggle echoes the frustrating obstacle course multiple frontline workers have faced in the city. The shortage in masks, gowns and face shields in overwhelmed ERs prompted the nurses’ union to sue the state health department. The suit is pending.
Within the shelter system, DHS peace officers complained weeks ago that they weren’t given face masks to wear in crowded shelters where social distancing was nearly impossible. In response, de Blasio promised to provide peace officers and shelter staff with face coverings.
Teamsters Local 237 President Gregory Floyd said the mayor did provide some masks, but apparently not enough. On Wednesday, union officials said DHS peace officers were still seeking an adequate supply.
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