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NYC Dept. of Homeless Services to Move Shelter Residents to Hotels

Anya Schultz, Host: New York City’s shelter system has mostly been made up of shared living spaces, including communal bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms. These have become hotbeds for spreading coronavirus. The Department of Homeless Services reports over 700 people in its shelter system have tested positive. Almost 100 have died. As Will Walkey reports, people have been struggling as the city moves some of the homeless from shelters to vacant hotel rooms.

Will Walkey, Byline: David Gaynor has been homeless for 12 years. He’s been living since September in the Opportunity House in Brooklyn. He says he’s worried that he might catch the Coronavirus. He lives in a long narrow room filled with 20 black metal framed beds lined up next to each other.

David Gaynor: It’s like waking up from one nightmare to another nightmare. you're in a shelter with 60 men, how can you be six, you know, six feet away and then you get 20 in the room, in this dorm.

Walkey: Gaynor says that every day he sees residents of the shelter coughing and showing symptoms in communal spaces. Multiple people at the Opportunity House shelter have already tested positive.

Gaynor: We had, one, two, we had three in this room, in this dorm. Yeah and one of the gentlemen that had it -- the first one, they waited about a week before they came and disinfected it and sanitized. But now I guess his 14 days are up he back in here.

Walkey: The Department of Homeless Services, or DHS, did not respond to requests for comment about the safety of its shelters. But the DeBlasio administration is moving some shelter residents into vacant hotel rooms around the city. They say that should also make the shelters safer by allowing six feet between beds, and more room to isolate the infected. The city plans to move 1,000 residents a week this month from shelters into hotel rooms. Joe Loonam works for VOCAL-NY, a social services organization that works with the homeless. He says even if the city does meet this goal, its still not enough to keep the shelters safe.

Joe Loonam: We’re not sure how many people are being infected in the shelter system right now. But we know that there are tens of thousands who can’t meaningfully isolate right now and that’s put the whole system at risk.

Walkey: The city will only move residents who are currently in shelters into hotel rooms. But advocates say many homeless people are afraid to enter the shelter system, so they don’t have access to the hotel residence program. Last week, VOCAL-NY hosted an online public forum with elected officials and individuals experiencing homelessness. One of them was Rosetta Johnson, who’s currently living in her car. She’s scared of entering a DHS facility.

Rosetta Johnson: I went to the shelter a couple of weeks ago, and the lady told me, enter at your own risk. I refuse because I refuse to lose my life. I don't want to die because that's not my goal.

Walkey: Johnson says she’s reached out to the mayor’s office and the governor for help.

Johnson: All they have been doing is like ignoring us. I'm homeless. I'm that homeless person. I'm the one that needs the hotel room.

Walkey: Jacquie Simone is a policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy and service organization. She says Homeless individuals are more likely to have underlying health conditions and need proper isolation. The problem, is that the city isn’t moving fast enough. For her, the solution is so obvious, that even children could understand.

Jacquie Simone: The first thing I did yesterday was talk to third graders and the first question I got was why isn’t the mayor isn’t providing hotel rooms, and it’s really inexplicable at this point.

Walkey: The New York City Council introduced legislation two weeks ago to provide a hotel room for all single adults on the streets or in congregate shelters -- over 17,000 people in total. But the De Blasio administration opposes the bill, saying they don’t have the resources to provide a room for that many people. Simone, disagrees, saying the Federal government could help out.

Simone: FEMA very clearly stated that they would reimburse the city for the costs of the hotel rooms and that correspondance occured before the city council hearing where the city testified that finances were one of their primary concerns with the hotel rooms.

Walkey: Yesterday, three New York City Councilmembers called upon de Blasio to fire Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Steven Banks. In a letter to the mayor, they said that he’s systematically failed to address the homeless situation during this pandemic. As the city struggles to move people out of its shelters, other advocates say the pandemic has revealed just how inadequate shelters already were in the first place. Aine Duggan works for Partnership for the Homeless.

Aine Duggan: I think the bigger lesson here is that shelters are not appropriate places for human beings to live. That’s actually the biggest lesson of all in the entire experience.

Walkey: On Wednesday night, the city began the policy of shutting down the subway system from 1-5 am. The subways have long been another shelter of last resort for homeless people. One of them was Anthony Williams, who spoke at the Facebook event from a train platform in Inwood. He also refuses to return to a shelter, and is now getting kicked out of the one place he feels safe and warm every night.

Anthony Williams: You know, again, I'm still out here and I'm screaming and crying out for help. So if anybody can hear me, you know, please help me.

Walkey: Williams says he'll keep staying in the subway system when it's open, until he can find a more permanent, and safer home. Will Walkey. Columbia Radio News.


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