A case filed by Legal Aid late Thursday seeks to mandate single-occupancy hotel rooms for single adult homeless New Yorkers for the duration of the crisis.
Homeless men and women were left to languish in packed hotel rooms and shelters as COVID-19 raged in New York City, putting them at heightened risk of serious illness, a new lawsuit demanding relief charges.
The suit, filed late Thursday by the Legal Aid Society and the law firm Jenner & Block, calls on the city to provide single-occupancy hotel rooms to “every single adult homeless New Yorker until public health authorities determine it is safe to return to congregate settings.”
The homeless men and women claim in their complaint that jamming as many as 11 people in a shelter bedroom put them at increased risk of infection.
Some shelter residents named in the suit told THE CITY they share bedrooms and bathrooms despite having severe underlying medical conditions — such as cancer, hepatitis C, asthma and heart disease — that put them at higher risk of fatal COVID infections.
“I’m not safe at all,” said one of the plaintiffs, who lives in a downtown Manhattan women’s shelter and shares a room with 10 other women — and a bathroom with as many as 20 — despite her high-risk health conditions, including diabetes.
“I know a second wave is going to come bigger than the first one, and I don’t feel safe where I am,” she added.
Little ‘Aid, Care and Support’
The suit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, cites the city, its Department of Homeless Services and administrator Joslyn Carter, along with her boss, Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks.
DHS says it has placed as many as 13,000 out of the nearly 18,000 adults in the shelter system into hotels — most visibly at the Lucerne, an Upper West Side hotel where a legal battle has ensued over whether the men staying there may remain.
But in many instances, homeless hotel residents are sharing rooms — even when they have medical conditions that local health guidelines say should entitle them to private rooms, the lawsuit contends.
Rather than automatically put anyone with a qualifying medical condition in their own room, the lawsuit claims, the individuals must ask for a special placement. Many are not aware the option is available, according to the suit.
The suit alleges that the city’s “refusal” in many cases to place homeless adults in single occupancy rooms to protect their health violates the state constitution’s guarantee of “aid, care and support of the needy.”
Past landmark lawsuits successfully used that same provision to guarantee a right to shelter for homeless people in New York City. Among the attorneys who sued to advance that right was Banks, who was a top Legal Aid attorney before becoming the architect of de Blasio’s homelessness response.
Banks’ agency, the Department of Social Services, has not yet commented on the COVID suit.
Attorneys say the decision to file the lawsuit marks the culmination of months-long frustrations with city agencies during the pandemic.
“We gave a lot of opportunities to try to resolve this,” said Joshua Goldfein, who leads the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project.
“We’re facing right now a potential resurgence of the virus and everyone is being asked to do what they can in order to appropriately social distance,” Goldfein added. “We’re asking for the city to allow homeless adults to isolate in the same way that they ask others.”
Homeless at High Risk
The Coalition for the Homeless, which is also a plaintiff in the suit, estimated in June that shelter residents were 61% more likely to die of the coronavirus than the city population as a whole.
People staying in those shelters described sharing their bedrooms with multiple other people and bathrooms with an entire floor as the virus raged this spring.
Among them is plaintiff Gary Corbin, who abandoned his city-provided hotel room because of concerns about his vulnerability to the illness stemming from his hepatitis C and from past cancer treatment, according to the lawsuit.
Corbin — feeling unsafe with a roommate whose actions “exposed him to a high level of risk of contracting [COVID-19] and negatively impacted his mental health” — requested a single occupancy bedroom, which the city denied, the suit alleges.
He is currently living on the streets, having burned through his monthly disability benefits to fund his own private hotel stays, according to the lawsuit.
The suit also charges that the city is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act for “failing” to provide reasonable accommodations to all qualifying individuals who request a single room due to their medical conditions.
Court papers cite advisories from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending protective measures for older adults and people with certain medical conditions in order to decrease risks of airborne virus transmission.
Federal health guidelines for homeless shelters recommend that “non-group housing options (such as hotels/motels) that have individual rooms” should be considered and put in use depending on a jurisdiction’s available resources, THE CITY reported in May.