For thousands of homeless New Yorkers, a life-changing silver lining of the pandemic is coming rapidly to a close: They will no longer live in city hotels.
In the span of about six weeks, the Department of Homeless Services will empty more than 60 commercial hotels used during the COVID-19 crisis as emergency housing for about 9,000 people.
That means more than a thousand people each week are being sent back to dorm-style shelters, also known as “congregate shelters,” where residents sleep multiple people in a room. Meanwhile, it’s unclear how many of the city’s homeless people have been vaccinated.
“You get comfortable in one place, [then] you’re somewhere else. You’ve got to re-adapt,” said Mike Roberts, who was forced on Monday to move from an Upper West Side hotel to Kenton Hall, a men’s shelter on the Bowery. “It’s very, very depressing.”
Roberts, originally from Atlanta, has been homeless in New York for about two years. For the past four months, he’s lived at the Lucerne Hotel — which became a lightning rod for anti-homeless sentiment from some locals over the past year.
Living at the hotel allowed Roberts to focus on recovery from drug use, join a local job program and get his paperwork together to apply for permanent housing, he said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said repeatedly the hotel shelters were meant as a temporary fix. But that hasn’t made the huge lifestyle shift any easier for the people for whom just having a private room and shower has been transformative.
“People will be in the process of doing stuff and about to reach the goal they’re trying to reach. All the sudden: transfer. And you’ve got to deal with a whole new set of people who you don’t even know,” Roberts said.
Joseph Humphrey boarded a repurposed school bus Monday morning surrounded by cameras and reporters. He’d been living at the Lucerne since last summer, he said, when the West 79th Street hotel first drew the ire of its neighbors, then lots of media attention.
“It was like home,” he said, speaking from a tinted window of the bus.
Nearby, members of the volunteer group UWS Open Hearts — which has advocated for the residents over the past year — passed out “know your rights” flyers to men walking out offering help with paperwork to get a special health accommodation for a private shelter room.
On the ground, members of the group Open Hearts had written messages in colored chalk: “Housing is a human right,” read one. “Love thy neighbor,” advised another.
One by one, residents came down the Lucerne steps hauling duffle bags and climbed into the bus.
Humphry was also headed for Kenton Hall downtown.
“Who knows how long I’m going to be there. I’ve got a housing package,” he said, referring to the approvals necessary to secure subsidized housing. “But I still don’t have no housing.”
Mid-sentence, the bus began to pull away.
“I’m gonna be OK!” Humphrey shouted. “Hasta la vista!”
The move from the Lucerne is among “Wave 2” of the DHS transfer operation, according to a source with knowledge of the plan, with a new group, or wave, of hotels vacated each week.
This week, eight hotels — all in Midtown, the Upper West Side or Upper East Side — will be emptied of their nearly 1,500 residents.
In addition to the Lucerne, they include: OYO Times Square on W. 47th St.; Hotel Times Square on W. 46th St.; the Comfort Inn on W. 44th St.; Four Points on W. 40th St.; the Kixby Hotel on W. 35th St.; The Blakely on W. 55th St. and The Bentley on E. 62nd St.
Opponents of the plan to push people out of the free hotel rooms blamed racism and a pervasive “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) sentiment.
“The pattern of moves is very clear,” said Helen Strom, a legal advocate with the Safety Net Project, an advocacy group for homeless and low-income New Yorkers. ”The city’s starting with almost exclusively Manhattan hotels, primarily in Midtown, in white and wealthy areas.”
Deputy Public Advocate Delsenia Glover, a longtime housing-rights activist, said of the moves: “NIMBYism wins.”
“This city does not value human beings unless they have money or status or political influence,” she said in front of the Lucerne on Monday.
Advocates have also previously pointed out that the federal government has said it would pay for hotel rooms through September. Those payments, however, do not cover programs, services or staff for the shelters.
Isaac McGinn, a DHS spokesperson, said the agency anticipates completing all of the hotel moves “by approximately the end of July.”
In a statement, he applauded shelter staff, providers and homeless outreach workers for their work “amid unprecedented circumstances” to relocate “thousands of individuals from shelters to commercial hotels to provide them with the same protections from the virus as individuals who were fortunate enough to be able to socially distance at home during this crisis.”
“Now that health indicators are headed in the right direction,” and the state issued new guidance on congregate shelter operations, he said, “We are phasing out this temporary program and returning to shelter, as we have said we would throughout the pandemic.”
A Bad Environment
Even though it’s a disruption, Roberts is still going through with his move from the Lucerne — because he’s “come too far” to stop now, he said. But he knows there will be men who fall off the radar after the transfer.
“It can lead people back to the street,” he said.
At the Lucerne, living was easier, less crowded and it “made you want to come back,” he said.
“Once you get in them shelters you just living with 20 people in the dorm, a person talking all night ‘cause he’s crazy, and people might be getting high. You don’t want to live like that,” he added.
Strom has heard the same from many clients from more than a dozen shelters who got used to having, among other things, “basic privacy, personal space and the ability to shut a door.”
“People are going to go back to the street rather than go back to congregate shelter,” she said “That is how bad that environment is for people.”
Many are “upset and concerned” about returning to congregate shelters, especially as more contagious COVID-19 variants are spreading in New York.
“We’re talking to people with really serious health issues, underlying health conditions and disabilities — conditions that put them at risk of severe illness or death and COVID,” Strom said.
The homeless services agency does not track the vaccination rate among its shelter population. But data suggests it’s likely that homeless New Yorkers have been vaccinated at a much lower rate than the general public.
As of June 21, the latest data available, about 6,500 shelter residents had been vaccinated through DHS services.
That’s up from 5,000 in early May, the New York Post reported, but represents a sliver of the total population of the shelter system, which was 47,114 as of Monday, DHS records show.
How many people within that total have been vaccinated outside of the DHS’s efforts is unknown.
Strom said the majority of homeless New Yorkers she speaks with are unvaccinated, including “people with really serious health conditions” who aren’t sure how the vaccine will affect them, she said.
Roberts has yet to get the shot himself, saying he doesn’t “believe in taking medication for stuff like that” and that he feels “perfectly fine.”
Still, he worries about the fate of the shelter population overall.
“Governor Cuomo said 70% of the people have been vaccinated, right? But if people haven’t been vaccinated, I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be people who are homeless,” he said. “That means they’re putting people at risk.”