Many of the issues homeless new Yorkers with health problems face—abrupt transfers, inaccessible accommodations, shelters in isolated areas—existed long before the pandemic, but they have been laid bare as Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to pursue a summer-long effort to clear about 60 so-called “de-densification” hotels.
Kenneth Jones learned he lost his room in an East New York hotel, rented out as a temporary homeless shelter, as soon as he returned from Brookdale Hospital last week. He said he had been in the hospital for three days for emergency heart treatment after a staff member at the hotel called 911, but he didn’t notify the shelter provider about his admission. Under city shelter rules, he was AWOL and forfeited his spot.
A few days later, Melvin Green returned to the same hotel, only to find that staff had thrown away his possessions, perhaps assuming he had already been transferred to another location, he said. Green has diabetes and four stents in his heart and said he had to rush to get new diabetes medications and blood thinners from his physician to avoid the emergency room.
Twelve miles north, at the Clarke Thomas Men’s Shelter on Wards Island, Darren Whitney awaits a hip transplant and uses a walker to get around. He said his doctor won’t approve the surgery until he finds a permanent home; the risk of infection is too great in the barracks-style shelter and Whitney can’t have a home health aide inside the building.
“All I need is a place,” Whitney said Monday. “Once I get a place, my problems are over.”
The three men, backed by advocates and some city lawmakers, say their situations illustrate the desperate need for permanent housing for homeless New Yorkers with disabilities and other serious health problems —as well as the routine degradations and burdens they experience.
Many of those issues—abrupt transfers, inaccessible accommodations, shelters in isolated areas—existed long before the pandemic, but they have been laid bare as Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to pursue a summer-long effort to clear about 60 so-called “de-densification” hotels. The city rented out one- and two-bed hotel rooms at the beginning of the pandemic to house roughly 10,000 homeless adults and stop the spread of COVID-19 among some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers. The Federal Emergency Management Administration has said they would reimburse the city for the rooms through the end of the year.
The hotel clearance plan began at a fevered pace in June, with disabled residents rushed back to sites that did not meet their needs with little notice. Homeless New Yorkers challenged the moves in court, prompting judges to slow the rate of transfers.
De Blasio has stuck with that policy despite the legal challenges and court-ordered delays. Earlier this month, just under 2,000 adults were left in the remaining hotels, according to court documents filed by the Department of Social Services (DSS) in an ongoing legal battle over the policy.
Homeless rights advocates and some policymakers say the transfers have exposed an existing, broken status quo in the shelter system, particularly when it comes to people with health needs.
“There’s been a rush to get back to normal, but I don’t think ‘normal’ was very good,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams Monday. He spoke with City Limits as he waited for a bus to visit a shelter on Wards Island, part of a fact-finding trip organized by advocates for homeless New Yorkers. He has called on de Blasio to halt the transfers back to congregate shelters and instead end the hotel deals only after residents access permanent housing.
“Sometimes mayors get wedded to very bad policy and I don’t understand it,” he said. “It’s not a very good legacy item.”
De Blasio has repeatedly said the shelters are safe, despite a citywide surge in cases of the delta variant, and city officials have highlighted a robust vaccination program led by DSS, which says it has provided 21,750 vaccine doses to shelter clients and staff.
“DSS-DHS has worked together with provider partners throughout the pandemic to protect our clients and implement safety protocols, like proactive COVID testing, vaccination, isolation/quarantine services, and more — and those efforts have paid off,” a spokesperson said, citing a small incidence of cases relative to the citywide population.
Nevertheless, a significant number of shelter residents and employees remain unvaccinated and unwilling to get the shot.
Advocates, however, say there is reason for hope—so long as the city and its shelter providers act quickly. Federal initiatives and recent municipal legislation championed by homeless New Yorkers give the city an opportunity to drastically decrease the shelter population by helping residents secure permanent housing.
On Tuesday, the Human Resources Administration will raise the value of rental subsidies issued to homeless New Yorkers, allowing them to access more apartments in the country’s most expensive rental market. The increase to the CityFHEPS housing voucher could potentially unlock tens of thousands of homes across the city.
City officials have also allowed more homeless New Yorkers to apply for nearly 8,000 federal emergency housing vouchers, reversing an earlier decision to prevent people approved for supportive housing from applying.
The stronger subsidies could open up more buildings with elevators or space for wheelchairs for New Yorkers with disabilities and health problems, said Erin Kelly, the director of health policy and partnerships at the organization RxHome.
“There’s a genuine gap in the city’s system around people who need this higher level of care that the DHS shelter system is not equipped to provide,” said Kelly, a former senior adviser at the agency. “If I were able to make city systems work as well as they could, I would connect folks who need this high level of care with CityFHEPS and housing choice vouchers, and then make sure they have the Medicaid-funded services they need.”
Dr. Betty Kolod, an East Harlem primary care physician and member of the New York Doctors Coalition, said the city should aggressively roll out the vouchers for homeless New Yorkers.
And with the stronger subsidies in effect, “it makes no sense to send people back into shelters,” she said.