Some 120 homeless New Yorkers died from COVID-19 during the first four months of the pandemic, but the death rate has fallen dramatically since then. One reason appears to be the decision to move thousands of homeless adults out of congregate shelters, where they often shared rooms, into individual hotel rooms. Gothamist/WNYC recently interviewed Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks about these issues and more, including the challenge of vaccinating thousands of homeless New Yorkers and staffers. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Even before the pandemic started, the city was dealing with a homelessness crisis. Last year brought a new set of challenges. Where do you think you failed or fell short?

The challenges that we were confronted with were Herculean. We could not have anticipated in February what we would confront in March. Literally overnight we created a system to isolate clients, relocate them out of their congregate shelters into commercial hotels.

I think the perspective was that the shelter system was a ticking time bomb, and we, through the dedication of our staff and the provider staff, diffused that by taking the steps that we did in the congregate shelters. We've had since the summer only two cases, only two people, who passed away, which is two too many.  But it shows you the steps that we took in order to stop the spread.

While the strategy has allowed you to prevent the spread of COVID in shelters, groups in some neighborhoods didn’t want homeless people in nearby hotels. On the Upper West Side, Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to move around 200 homeless men out of the Lucerne Hotel. Many people said he was caving to the pressure of a wealthy community. What did you think of the mayor’s decision?

Well, look, we moved 10,000 people out of congregate shelters in an eight-week period of time, and over the last number of months we've been reevaluating where some of those relocations took place. 

For example, most recently in Hell's Kitchen, the community board and local elected officials asked us to relocate a shelter of one of the hotels on 36th Street to another location within the community board. We did that, and we've been open to input that we've been getting from communities and elected officials all around the city to make adjustments where we can.

It has been reported that you were opposed to the mayor’s decision on the Lucerne. Is that true?

I'm just not going to get involved with gossip about what people say in City Hall. I'm going to focus on the work that we're doing.

Listen to Mirela Iverac's interview with Commissioner Banks on WNYC:

The mayor's critics say he's set a bad precedent. So what do you plan to tell residents that oppose shelters in their neighborhoods when they bring up the Lucerne example?

Since the summer, we've sited a large number of shelters throughout the city. In some communities there’s been tremendous support. In other communities, like we find so often, there is opposition. And then once we set up a community advisory board for the shelter and we work with the community, the concerns dissipate. 

And we'll continue to do that. That's how we've sited 88 shelters around the city; opened 43 of them already.

You've said you are going to be guided by science. Can you say anything a little bit more specific about when you expect to start moving people back from hotels into shelters? Would that happen when all of them are vaccinated? 

I think we have to be guided by what the situation in the city overall is, which is why the vaccine initiative in the city overall is so important.  And our initiative to move people out of shelter was part to help the clients, but also to part to prevent community spread. Same with the vaccine initiatives that are going on in the city overall.

The key focus is to address community spread, and when that is addressed, then we can focus on when it is time to return to congregate shelters.

Homeless New Yorkers became eligible for COVID-19 vaccines on January 11th. Can you tell us more about your plans to get them and shelter staff vaccinated?

We have been doing everything we can to encourage staff and now clients to take advantage of the availability of the vaccination sites that the city has set up. We began to have our first supplemental site for the shelter system this week, and we have more planned. But our main focus is on making sure that our clients, our staff have access to the overall city systems, and we're adding our sites within the shelter system as additional options.

But the key issue now is the availability of the vaccine. The city is literally out of vaccine, and that is the main focus that we all have. Our ability to continue to stand up new sites within the shelter system is going to be limited by the inability to provide the vaccines. 

The Department of Social Services told Gothamist/WNYC following the interview that it has  vaccinated around 250 clients and 300 staff members at its vaccination hub since last week.