At a time when New York City’s COVID-19 alert level is on high, city officials are planning to end protections put in place at the start of the pandemic to curb the spread of the virus in the city’s shelter system and safeguard older homeless people as well as those with certain medical conditions.
Under the changes, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) would no longer automatically place homeless people 70 and older in single rooms and those 66 and older in double rooms, according to Jacquelyn Simone, director of policy at the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group. She said the change may result in some older homeless people being moved from hotels to dorm-like shelters where they have to share a room and a bathroom.
The Department of Social Services, which oversees DHS, said the agency was reviewing the guidelines, but the changes do not appear to have been finalized yet.
Homeless advocates said the agency also wants to remove a host of medical conditions — including heart conditions, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, sickle cell disease, and uncontrolled type 2 diabetes — from a list of requirements that qualify people for what’s known as “reasonable accommodations,” which include requests to be placed in a single or double room.
“The pandemic is clearly not over,” said Joshua Goldfein, a staff lawyer for the Legal Aid Society. “If anything, the situation is getting worse.”
The pandemic is clearly not over ... if anything, the situation is getting worse.
The change befuddled some homeless advocates who said now is the wrong time to revert to the rules that were used before COVID-19 arrived. The move comes slightly more than two weeks after city health officials issued an advisory, urging people 65 and older to avoid crowded settings.
“In addition to removing protections for older adults, the information we've received indicates this is going to affect at least hundreds and probably thousands of people with a wide range of chronic health conditions,” said Helen Strom, director of benefits and homeless advocacy at the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project.
Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, COVID-19 has killed more than 40,000 New Yorkers. According to a report issued by the Coalition for the Homeless, 151 homeless people have died of COVID-19 since its onset in the city, which some advocates believe is likely an undercount. A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that excess deaths were higher among older adults during the omicron surge this past winter than when the delta variant was the most predominant strain in 2021.
The expected rule change comes as the city also plans to move 174 people out of the Radisson Hotel on William Street in Downtown Manhattan, which began to be used as a shelter in the early days of the pandemic where homeless people could socially distance themselves.
Simone said more than 40% of the hotel’s residents are 65 and older and that some may be transferred to a dorm-style shelter. She said most residents had been placed at the hotel after qualifying for reasonable accommodations under the city’s previous criteria.
"DSS’s new proposed guidance is entirely about squeezing homeless people out of reasonable accommodations that, under Mayor Eric Adams, the city doesn’t want to offer any longer,” Strom said.
Advocates said DHS began sending notices to hotel residents this week. A copy of the notification obtained by Gothamist showed residents were informed that the city will reevaluate their requests for reasonable accommodations.
Simone described the move as premature, noting that the city also began phasing out the use of commercial hotels and moving thousands of homeless people back to dorm-style shelters during the delta surge last summer.
“Here we are, again, warning the pandemic is ongoing, and urging DHS to not change the guidelines, and potentially putting people's health at risk,” Simone said.
DHS officials are also tightening restrictions for people ages 65 to 69 with a medical condition to qualify for a single room by requiring them to bring a doctor’s note, according to advocates.
“There's no good reason for them to be doing this now,” Goldfein said.