The recent debacle surrounding the city’s use of the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side to shelter homeless men during the pandemic, and Mayor de Blasio’s Sept. 8 order to transfer the men out of that hotel in response to NIMBY — and, at times, outwardly racist — outcry from some community members, have brought to light the urgent need to devise and implement a well-reasoned and coherent approach to providing emergency shelter to homeless people at this phase of the COVID-19 crisis.
All we’ve gotten to date are reactive, whipsawing policies thrown together in response to public-health crises and political complaints.
Individuals and families experiencing homelessness in New York City have a legal right to shelter under the state Constitution. Even before the pandemic, the city’s severe shortage of housing affordable to low-income households fueled an ongoing homelessness crisis in our city. The unprecedented economic fallout from the pandemic has further exacerbated the crisis, and will undoubtedly fuel more suffering in the months and years to come.
Tonight, a staggering 58,089 New Yorkers will bed down in the municipal shelter system overseen by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), and the number of single adults in DHS shelters has hit an all-time high of 19,504.
When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, DHS failed to act with appropriate speed to address the real risk of virus transmission in congregate shelters, where the majority of homeless single adults were residing. Only after many agonizing weeks of pressure from advocates and elected officials did DHS implement a plan to attempt to ensure the safety of those in congregate shelters by moving individuals into empty hotel rooms to promote effective social distancing.
The majority of confirmed deaths due to COVID-19 among homeless single adults occurred during the first few months of the pandemic before these hotels were in widespread use. It is tragic but unsurprising then that the age-adjusted COVID-19 mortality rate for sheltered single adults is 79% higher than it is for the city as a whole.
While we still lack an accurate assessment of the true number of lives lost to the virus, there is no question that lives were saved by the “de-densification” of shelters. As of the end of September, nearly 13,000 homeless single adults were in hotels. The last reported death due to COVID-19 among sheltered homeless New Yorkers was in mid-July.
The continued use of hotels as shelters has now become a hot-button topic, as both the mayor and governor have made statements about the need to move residents back into congregate facilities, pointing to the low infection rate in the city over the past few weeks. At the same time, we are now seeing clusters of COVID-19 spikes in certain parts of the city, threatening to spark another wave of community spread.
It is thus imperative that a rational framework, rooted in prioritizing safety, be developed to guide any decisions about transferring homeless residents of shelters and hotels during this phase of the COVID-19 crisis.
Any decision to transfer residents from shelters or hotels must be based on the principle of enhancing the health, wellbeing and stability of each homeless individual or family. The decisions about when to open schools have been based on what is best for the students, according to the mayor and governor. The decisions about when to open businesses endeavor to balance the public health considerations with the needs of those businesses. And so the decision about where to provide emergency shelter must be based on what is best for homeless New Yorkers.
First and foremost, the city must strive to provide homeless New Yorkers with immediate access to permanent, affordable, quality housing — both through effective rent subsidies and by ensuring that newly constructed housing is affordable to and available to homeless New Yorkers. Housing is health care, and it is the only solution to the city’s homelessness crisis.
Since providing enough affordable housing to meet the scale of need will take time, the city should provide every person who is currently unsheltered, living in a congregate shelter or living in a double-occupancy hotel room with a private, single-occupancy hotel room to allow for appropriate physical distancing.
Prematurely returning people to congregate settings threatens to undo the progress that has been made in controlling the virus’ spread, and will endanger lives.
The mayor’s ad hoc and ill-considered move to empty the Lucerne Hotel in response to a threatened lawsuit from an Upper West Side community group created a cascade of unnecessary problems throughout the shelter system that negatively impacted the health and wellbeing of hundreds of homeless New Yorkers. We must adopt a more rational and compassionate approach to avoid the stress and chaos of the past month.