Some 613 homeless New Yorkers died between July of 2019 and June of 2020, a 52% increase compared to the prior fiscal year, according to data released Tuesday by the de Blasio administration, a grim indicator of the effect of the coronavirus on people lacking permanent housing. 

The largest number of those deaths occurred between April and June, when COVID-19 first began to bear down on the city. As infections grew and communities of color were devastated by the pandemic, so was the city’s vast shelter system, where single adults typically share a room with several others. 

“This year reflects unimaginable challenge and enormous loss including losses during several months at the height of the pandemic when our city experienced death and trauma on a scale unseen before,” said Steven Banks, NYC's Commissioner of Social Services. 

By June, 120 homeless people had died from COVID, the vast majority of which were living in shelters. Only 12 were living on the street or in other precarious housing situations. 

Because congregate shelters were making it difficult to social-distance, Banks said that over an eight-week period in late spring the city moved 10,000 people into hotel rooms to stop the spread of the virus. He predicted the death toll would have been much worse without the emergency measure. 

“We know that strategy saved lives and we’ll be guided by the science when the time is right to return to congregate shelter but we know the urgency with which we acted was essential,” he said. 

While the report only goes through June, the city told Gothamist that between July and now, only seven people within the homeless shelter system have died from COVID and, of those seven, just two occurred since the summer. 

Residents of the Upper West Side sued the city over one relocation; they claimed homeless people in the Lucerne Hotel were making their neighborhood unsafe. Though Mayor Bill de Blasio sided with the Upper West Siders, a state appeals court earlier this month forbade the city to move the hotel’s occupants until the case winds its way through the legal process. 

The data on deaths is part of a report compiled by the city’s Department of Social Services with the help of the Department of Health and the city’s Medical Examiner. A 2006 city law requires the report to be submitted to the city council annually.  

In the last 10 years alone, the number of homeless deaths has more than tripled. Overall, middle-aged men die the most. In any given year, more typical health problems such as heart failure, diabetes and cancer plague the homeless population. But this year, a new and much more deadly threat— COVID-19—caused the most damage.   

Giselle Routhier, Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless, called the death toll devastating and said that even though the city has “de-densified” parts of the system by utilizing hotels, some people remain in congregate shelters. 

“We need the city to be using hotel rooms specifically for those people and for folks who are on the streets as well—direct placements into single occupancy hotel rooms—as we're seeing the second wave hit,” Routhier said. 

While COVID was the leading cause of death for individuals living in shelters, drug use was the leading cause of death among the homeless population as a whole. Some 131 people died because of the use of drugs compared to 116 the prior fiscal year. The vast majority of those deaths were due to accidental overdoses by people living in a city shelter, according to the report. Since the pandemic began, overdoses have also increased for the general population both nationally and locally. 

Chinazo Cunningham, professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said she was not surprised by the increase in overdose deaths among homeless people considering how difficult the pandemic has made it to receive healthcare whether for an addiction or a chronic health issue.  She said it is no longer possible for healthcare providers to take walk-in appointments and many people who are homeless don’t have phones to make appointments or receive telehealth. 

“One patient in particular, during this entire time since the pandemic, has not had a telephone number and has intercepted me in the park while I am walking to my clinic,” she said. “We do our visits in the park so that he can get his medication.”

To combat overdose deaths the city has been training staff and shelter residents to administer naloxone, a drug used to treat an opioid overdose. According to the city, last year naloxone was administered in homeless shelters 742 times; 92% of the time, those overdoses were reversed. 

Cunningham said more should be done at the front end of the healthcare system to address substance use disorders instead of waiting until a crisis strikes. 

In addition to moving shelter residents into commercial hotel rooms, the city said it's also administering testing in shelters across the system. So far, according to the city, close to 43,000 tests have been administered. Just 1% have come back positive. 

“Those are strategies that are working and we need to continue them,” Banks said. 

This story has been updated to reflect that 613 homeless New Yorkers have died, not 631 has written earlier. We apologize for the misstatement.