About a month after the pandemic shut down New York, the de Blasio administration began moving the first of thousands of people staying in the city’s shelter system to private hotels virtually emptied by the lockdown.
Homeless people largely hailed the move, saying the simple dignity of having their own bed and bathroom proved a life-changing experience.
But in June, as Mayor Bill de Blasio moved to fully reopen the city amid rising vaccination rates and decreasing infections, the city began to transfer many people back to congregate homeless shelters.
Advocates for the homeless slammed the transition, pointing out that President Joe Biden had extended an executive order mandating that FEMA reimburse all expenses tied to the emergency management of “non-congregate shelters” until September. The deadline has since been moved to Dec. 31.
Some without housing chose to live on the streets instead of going back to often chaotic and dangerous shelters. Others returned to group shelters where they have tried to obtain vouchers for private housing.
In the meantime, those staying in congregate shelters live in fear of contracting COVID-19, sleeping in close quarters with people who might not be vaccinated.
Democratic mayoral candidate Eric Adams, the race’s frontrunner, says he wants empty hotel space, especially outside of Manhattan, to be used as “supportive housing” for severely mentally ill people living on city streets.
THE CITY recently spoke with some New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and asked them to describe how the move from hotels back to shelters or the streets has changed their lives.
Here are some of their stories:
‘A Room of My Own’
The Department of Social Services sent Wayne Batchelor, 57, to the SpringHill Suites by Marriott in Midtown for several months. This summer, he was moved to the Pamoja House Homeless Shelter in an old armory in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He’s now in the process of securing his own apartment with the help of housing vouchers.
I got a room of my own while I was staying in the hotel. That was fine. It had a shower. It was a Marriott. I didn’t have any problems.
I was on the 14th floor. They brought the meals to each floor. The only real problem was we weren’t given a key. There were security guards on some of the floors so when you got into the elevator someone had to swipe the keypad so it could be sent to whichever floor you were on.
When I found out we were going to be moved back into sharing a room with a number of people, I decided to get a COVID test. I was negative. Since then, I’ve been getting a COVID test every two months just to know the state of my health.
I’m sharing a room with 15 other people. I’ve seen someone overdose and collapse in front of me. People are defecating in the shower. The staff are, for want of better word, terrible.
I’ve had run-ins because I refuse to be treated in a certain way. If you stand up for yourself, it leads to confrontation. There are people who have made this their home. I’m of the opinion that you should get out as soon as possible. It’s a very negative place.
I haven’t really been sleeping. There are people up throughout the night, making noise, screaming and fighting. I used to sleep eight hours when I was in the hotel alone.
I’m in close proximity to people, less than six feet away. There are people constantly awake and I don’t really feel comfortable. Maybe at 2 a.m. there’s a bed check, the light is turned on.
I haven’t exercised. I was able to exercise when I was at the Marriott. I bought a yoga mat and I was getting into a routine which stopped when I left there.
[At the shelter] the food is mainly chicken and something else. It’s low-grade. It’s not really healthy or good.
‘It’s All Gone’
Martin Diaz, 43, was moved from a shelter to a hotel in Queens where he spent five months in his own room trying to get his life back on track. Now, he’s living on the streets.
I’d never go back to the shelters. It’s a dangerous place. If a person is high or drunk next to you, they are going to take it out on you.
It’s a failed system. Homeless people need a lot more help. Half-assed help gets half-assed results.
I almost got killed a couple times in the shelter. I’ve been stabbed and everything-but-shot inside them. It happens. Shelters are some of the most dangerous places in the city. You want something to happen? Stay in a shelter.
If I had a place, I could work. A lot of shelters want you back by 5 p.m. They make it difficult for things to work.
I already lost all the weight I was able to gain when I was in the hotel. And all the money I saved: $400. It’s all gone.
‘Took Everything I Had’
Patricia Minor, 54, sleeps on the same Manhattan corner each night and refuses to go to a shelter. She said she spent a few weeks in a hotel, but got kicked out for allegedly stealing someone’s purse.
The shelters are bad. Everybody is doing drugs. It’s chaos. They rob and steal there. I’d rather be begging on the street. I’ve been robbed four times in the shelter. They took everything I had.
‘Shelters Are Hell’
John Intervante, 38, begs for money for food near Penn Station and sometimes wonders whether he’s better off living on the streets than the Coney Island shelter he currently calls home. He spent six months in a Brooklyn hotel earlier this year.
It was night and day at the hotel. We had our own rooms and got fed everyday. It was really nice. Shelters are hell. You literally have to fight for everything. I do the best I can. If people give me money, I eat. If they don’t, I don’t.
My mother in New Jersey helps me the most. Without my mother I’d literally starve to death.
When I first got to the shelter, I didn’t have a blanket or pillow. I stay there just to sleep. I leave at 5 a.m.
Sometimes I feel like the street is better than the shelter. There are a lot of people coming out of the prison system. They don’t adjust well. It’s a struggle.
I got lucky. I got five good roommates. Nobody snores.
(Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.)