After photos surfaced earlier this week of people sleeping in a crowded stairway at a Manhattan congregate homeless shelter, local officials are sparring with the city Department of Social Services over providing single hotel rooms to homeless adults during the coronavirus pandemic.
The NY Post and the CITY published photos from the 30th Street men’s shelter by Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, showing a crowd of people resting on a staircase in close quarters, not wearing masks or other protective equipment as they huddled on the bare floor.
The city has been trying to move homeless people off the streets into congregate shelters after the MTA began shutting down the subway service and closing subway stations between 1 and 5 a.m. for cleaning, displacing the men and women who sought refuge there at night. Some homeless advocates say the congregate shelters are dangerous and help spread the coronavirus among a vulnerable population, and have been urging the city to place the homeless in vacant hotel rooms.
The City Council could vote as early as next week on a bill that would expand the use of hotel rooms for single homeless adults.
Councilmember Stephen Levin, who chairs the council’s Committee on General Welfare, said the estimated 9,000 people still living in congregate shelters or on the street need urgent help to move into single private rooms.
Though the city has already moved 8,000 people from congregate shelters into hotel rooms so far–3,500 were already living in the shelters before the pandemic–Levin, in a phone interview on Saturday, said “they’re doubled up in hotel rooms with a stranger.” He's sponsored a bill that would require DSS to provide private single rooms to everyone in the shelter system and street homeless, as well as requiring that shelters immediately reduce the risk of COVID-19 by positioning beds at least six feet apart unless they are located in a private room occupied by members of the same family. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has committed to paying for 75 percent of the cost, Levin said, as it has done in California.
Levin is calling on the council to vote on his bill as early as Tuesday, a day after the council's General Welfare and Finance committees convene a joint budget hearing centered around the Department of Homeless Services.
DSS, which oversees DHS, is pushing back against single rooms, saying housing people separately would require enormous staffing resources and that two adults to a room is safe and healthy.
Levin’s bill is “ham-fisted and reckless, self-defeatingly unilateral and ill-informed, and legally questionable and amateurish: insisting on using a one-size fits all approach for a system that is anything but, and forcing the involuntary rushed transfer of more than ten thousand people into hotels without appropriate services to match, putting individuals with higher service needs, including substance use challenges, at risk in the process," said Isaac McGinn, DSS spokesperson, in an email statement.
“Let’s be clear: there is no disagreement about the use of hotels–commercial hotels are an essential part of our strategies for protecting our clients, as demonstrated by the fact that more than 8,000 of our adult clients are now residing in commercial hotel rooms, with that number increasing to 9,000 by Sunday,” McGinn said. “Placing two clients per room not only aligns with health guidance but promotes harm reduction, which is essential for clients who may need a higher level of services."
McGinn didn't question the funding aspect of Levin's bill, but the hiring of additional staffers required to carry this mandate out. "Where are these thousands of new clinical/nursing staff coming from?” said McGinn.
Councilmember Brad Lander, how is in favor of Levin's bill, called the DSS’s statement “cartoonish insults” on Twitter.
“Lives are at stake. CDC (and common sense) recommends against congregate shelters during COVID. 100,000+ empty hotel rooms. FEMA will pay at least 75%,” Lander said on Twitter on Saturday as he criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio for what he perceives as inaction. “But if the Administration is going to mislead, insult, and deflect, then I'll support passing the bill ... over @NYCMayor's veto, if necessary.”
For weeks, we've been pushing to make sure that every homeless individual who seeks one can get a hotel room to shelter-in-place safely during the COVID crisis.— Brad Lander (@bradlander) May 16, 2020
Sounds humane & obvious, right?
Sadly @nycdhs calls it "ham-fisted" & "amateurish."
So we'll have to push harder. 1/
Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, said in a phone interview that single rooms are the better option. “Single-occupancy rooms…are much preferable in terms of limiting the risk of transmission even between roommates,” she said. “In order to follow public health guidance, people should be able to have their own space in terms of sleeping and bathroom facilities. And double occupancy–while preferable to a large congregate shelter–is still not adequate if we want to actually reduce the spread of COVID among homeless New Yorkers.”
Asked if he would veto the City Council bill if it passes, de Blasio said on Sunday that his administration is "working with the Council. We're in constant dialogue with them. We're all trying to get to the same place in the end. We want to protect people, we want to keep people safe. We also have to figure out what's going to be best in all senses for homeless people, including their mental health needs and other needs... We want to use the facilities we have and when we need others, we'll bring them into play. We also have to think about, you know, the costs involved."