Robert Feliciano’s life began to unravel after he was diagnosed with cancer, leaving him jobless and homeless.
He slept on the streets at first and later shared a room with other homeless men in a group shelter in midtown Manhattan, where he said fights frequently broke out and drug use took place in the open. It’s a common complaint among residents of New York City’s congregate shelter system, which many find unsafe.
But eight months ago, the city moved Feliciano, 47, to the former Clarion Hotel in Murray Hill, which was converted to a homeless shelter, where he has his own room with a private bathroom, and where, he said, he can finally sleep in peace.
“It’s got a lot of privacy,” Feliciano said. “They do wellness checks every two to three hours. The people are really nice in here.”
Since 2016 — after a policy overhaul first laid out by Mayor Bill de Blasio — the city has focused on opening more single-room, transitional housing and so-called stabilization beds in buildings such as hotels. Unlike congregate shelters, which offer dorm-style living, these types of accommodation have more privacy and fewer restrictions, which homeless advocates said are more appealing to long-term street homeless individuals.
The recent hotels-turned-shelters have sparked fierce opposition from other local residents. But as COVID-19 continues to cause economic disruptions in the travel industry, the pandemic may have created a brief window of opportunity for the city to open more locations as hotel owners search for new revenue sources for their shuttered properties.
Vijay Dhandapani, president and chief executive officer of the Hotel Association of New York City, said 150 New York City hotels remain closed since the pandemic began.
“Many of them have been underwater and what was initially a liquidity crisis became a solvency crisis, meaning that they cannot stay open and therefore have closed,” Dhandapani said. “Those that could sell, have sold. Some have sold at distressed prices and just gone out of the market. But those [that] have remained closed, they’re looking for other opportunities and that’s one of the reasons why you are seeing those two hotels and possibly more being converted.”
The latest is the former The Hotel @ New York City, at Lexington Avenue and East 30th Street, which once touted itself as a “chic boutique” hotel “in the refined Murray Hill neighborhood,” according to its website. In late December, city officials announced it had converted the 117-bed hotel to a stabilization facility to serve single homeless men. The city hired the Bowery Residents Committee — a non-profit that operates six other transitional shelters in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn — to run the shelter.
Mario G. Messina, president of the 29th Street Neighborhood Association, which has 600 members from Kips Bay and Midtown South, said the group opposes the city opening the shelter for single men in a community that he said already has more than a dozen shelters serving various homeless populations.
“How many shelters are in the West Village? How many shelters are in the 80s? How many shelters are in the 90s?” Messina said, referring to streets further uptown. “They’re putting up shelters where they have less resistance and where they can do it overnight.”
Community Board 6, which includes Murray Hill and Kips Bay, is home to four traditional shelters, according to the Department of Social Services (DSS), not including the new hotel conversion at 161 Lexington. DSS said the department has increased the number of specialized beds dedicated for homeless individuals from approximately 600 in 2013 to well over 2,000 today across the city.
“Helping New Yorkers who are living unsheltered get back on their feet is hard work in the best of times — and as our city continues to recover from this pandemic, it is even more important that every community come together to provide that helping hand and support to their fellow New Yorkers in need,” said DSS spokesman Ian Martin.
New York City had more than 107,00 homeless adults and children living in the Department of Homeless Services' shelter system in 2021, according to the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless. The group said homelessness in the city has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The census does not include homeless individuals staying at shelters run by other city agencies.
In November 2020, a group of residents organized and formed Save Murray Hill after city officials announced plans to open a shelter at the former Renwick Hotel to house 170 homeless families. The historic hotel was once home to writers including F. Scott Ftizgerald and John Steinbeck, according to its owners.
In Manhattan’s Chinatown, residents and business owners staged protests in December after they learned of the city’s plans to convert a former hotel at 91 East Broadway into a 120-bed safe haven, a type of supportive housing for homeless individuals. The group is working to raise $300,000 to fund a lawsuit against the city in an effort to block the project from moving forward.
One reason the hotel-to-shelter conversion is concentrated in Manhattan is because that’s where the hotels are. As of January 2020, there were more than 700 hotels in New York City, and 81% of hotel rooms were in Manhattan, according to the NYU Furman Center. Of those, 94% were below 59th Street.
A recent survey conducted on homeless shelters and their impacts by the 29th Street Neighborhood Association received 684 responses, Messina said. Respondents said they witnessed men urinating, defecating, and masturbating in public. Others said they were verbally and physically harassed by men loitering in the neighborhoods.
One respondent, Steven Giuca, said he saw drug dealing and drug use in front of the former Hotel @ New York City, which was used as a temporary shelter during the pandemic to house homeless men and, more recently, to quarantine those who had been exposed to COVID-19.
Another, Marea Edynak, said she, her husband, and their son have all been harassed by men on their block.
Feliciano, the cancer patient who currently resides at the former Clarion Hotel, is relieved not to be in the crowded shelter where he had been living.
“If I didn't have this medical condition, I would still be in that same shelter,” he said. “It's getting overcrowded. You got guys like bunking three in the room. It's just as crazy in there.”
The alternative would be a return to the streets. “Most of the time I will go to public places, Port Authority, Penn station, places that are open 24/7, where you're not going to get harassed,” Feliciano said. “You can only do that for so long.”
But while some hotel-to-shelter conversions are underway, Dandapani of the city’s hotel association said not all hotels, depending on their locations and design, are suited for conversion to shelters for people experiencing homelessness.
“I view this as a temporary sort of measure on the count that the [hotel] industry is in distress,” Dandapani said.