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Federal Health Authorities Warn Against Dispersing Homeless Without Refuge

A person sleeps on a 6 train during the coronavirus outbreak.
A person sleeps on a 6 train during the coronavirus outbreak, April 21, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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As City Hall struggles to house hundreds of homeless New Yorkers ejected nightly from shut-down subways, federal health authorities have weighed in with a warning: unsheltered homeless people should stay put unless they get a safe place to go.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends that unsheltered homeless people be allowed to remain where they are if “individual housing options” are not available.

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the CDC states. “This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

Emily Mosites, who helped write the guidelines as the CDC’s senior advisor for health and homelessness, declined to comment specifically on New York City. But she said that generally those recommendations should extend to people sleeping in a subway car or station.

“An unsheltered person should be able to remain where they are, unless they are being directly connected to housing, services, or safe shelter,” she said.

Mosites cautioned that lack of ready access to toilet facilities, showers and health care all heighten safety concerns, adding: “The balance of risks should be considered for each individual experiencing unsheltered homelessness.”

The CDC’s advice colors the push by the City Council to provide individual hotel rooms for all homeless single adults as an alternative to crowded congregate shelters. Mayor Bill de Blasio believes the plan is “ham-fisted and reckless, self-defeatingly unilateral and ill-informed, and legally questionable and amateurish,” a spokesperson said.

The mayor and City Council disagree on whether or not the federal government will reimburse the estimated $500 million cost of temporarily housing homeless people in hotels — and whether or not it is appropriate to place vulnerable people in private hotel rooms without providing additional services.

The Department of Homeless Services and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘I’m Scared Too’

As of Tuesday, 833 people in the city’s shelter system have tested positive for COVID-19, most of them in single adult shelters dominated by dormitory-style beds.

The city has tallied confirmed positive COVID-19 cases in “approximately 179 shelter locations” across the city, according to DHS. As of Tuesday, 76 homeless New Yorkers — all but three of them shelter residents — have died of COVID-19, according to the city’s latest tally.

The mayor teamed up with Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this month to announce the nightly shutdown of city subways between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. — rousting hundreds of people each night.

Many have been bused to sometimes dangerously crowded homeless shelters, where they sleep practically stacked on top of each other on the floors and hallways, as THE CITY reported last week.

The mayor and his spokespeople say as many as 183 people a night have been removed to shelter. But they have so far declined to specify how many of those shelter stays may have been individuals being repeatedly removed from the subways at night, only to return by day.

An internal report obtained by THE CITY shows that in the week-long period ending on May 10, which overlaps with the first week of the overnight subway closures, only 124 people who were placed in shelters spent at least one night there. A spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services said these numbers do not represent a complete count of those who stayed overnight.

Anthony Williams, homeless for most of the last 33 years, was used to getting hassled by cops on the subway.

But he said he was particularly stung by the pain he felt when he read Cuomo’s remarks in late April calling the sight of sleeping homeless people on the subway “disgusting” and “disrespectful to essential workers.”

“They are treating us who are homeless like we’re the ones getting everybody else sick — but I’m scared too,” said Williams, 57.

He said he swore off the shelter system after being assaulted there multiple times in the 1980s and 1990s. He declined a shelter placement every time law enforcement offered him one.

FEMA Funds

In March, the Department of Homeless Services issued guidelines to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including screening those in shelters or on the street for symptoms such as fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

Residents and new clients found to have any of these symptoms are placed in a separate waiting room before they are transported to either a hospital or an isolated room for the sick, depending on the severity of their illness, according to DHS protocol.

In late March, city Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot ordered the provision of private rooms, such as vacant hotel rooms, as emergency shelter “to any person needing to be isolated or quarantined in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Last month, the city announced it would set aside an additional 2,500 hotel rooms for shelter residents who are not sick but are considered vulnerable to illness. That includes people over the age of 70 and those with certain pre-existing conditions.

Prolonged homelessness can shorten an individual’s lifespan and make them susceptible to geriatric ailments long before their peers, studies have found.

Barbot’s March order accompanied a request sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency requesting funds to provide shelter for any person regardless of symptoms.

After an initial approval, FEMA on April 3 clarified its conditions for providing funds — stating it would cover the costs of hotel accommodations both for symptomatic people and “asymptomatic individuals exposed to COVID19, but not necessarily diagnosed or receiving a positive test, who do not have access to an isolated setting.”

Advocates have questioned what they call a “business-as-usual” approach of placing people in crowded shelters, given the number of known positive cases of the illness in the system so far and FEMA’s offer of aid.

“The mantra from the beginning has been housing, housing, housing; the urgency now is to give people a safe place to be inside,” said Shelly Nortz, deputy director for policy at the Coalition for the Homeless. “It’ll save lives.”

Fear of Shelters

For Williams, his fears of the city’s virulent shelters are compounded by his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and bronchitis, which he says he developed from Ground Zero volunteer efforts.

“I can’t afford to go inside places with other people. You know, people are telling me, ‘OK, why don’t you try sharing a place?’” Williams said. “But I can’t risk someone else developing COVID-19 and it spreads to me.”

Still, he is ineligible for a private isolation hotel room provided by the city because he is not a homeless shelter resident, and he does not have COVID-19.

Several days after Cuomo announced the overnight subway closures on April 30, Williams was placed in a hotel room paid for by the “Homeless Can’t Stay Home” crowdfunding campaign, for at least a month.

But Williams is desperate to be out of the streets and subways, for good. “I’m trying to be housed however much longer I’ve got to live,” he said, “and do it with dignity.”

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