New York, NY -With the ongoing threat of COVID-19 infection straining area hospitals to the limit and threatening to decimate a homeless population of nearly 65,000 people — community activists and elected officials are now calling for the most vulnerable among us to be housed inside 30,000 vacant hotel rooms.
Voices of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY), organized a press call on Tuesday that featured several homeless New Yorkers, as well as prominent elected officials including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Councilman Stephen Levin, among others.
According to VOCAL-NY and the elected officials, there’s actually a supply of 100,000 vacant hotel rooms in New York City — more than enough to house the entire homeless population and protect them from COVID-19.
The homeless individuals who discussed their current living conditions in the shelters said the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 would be less likely if they could reside in one of the 30,000 vacated hotel rooms being advocated.
One participant named “Alfonso” currently lives at the Clark Thomas Men’s Shelter on Randall’s Island. He didn’t mince words about the lack of social distancing at the shelter.
“It would be impossible for us to cover the level of depravity that is being shown with respect to COVID-19,” he said. “Social distancing is something that isn’t even in their vocabulary.”
Alfonso also said that preventive measures against COVID-19 at the shelter are practically non-existent.
“They don’t give us face masks, they don’t have sanitizers for us to use, there’s no sanitizing of the bathrooms [or] the living quarters for days on end,” he added. “It seems like it is an environment being created for individuals to, in fact, contract COVID-19.”
Peter Malavan, who has been chronically homeless since 2011, said that he would feel safer if he could transition from a shelter to a vacated hotel room.
“I’m really in favor of people on the street being placed in hotel rooms to keep people alive, once you keep people alive, you can house them and that really has to be the next step,” said Malavan.
And Steve Dickerson said that it’s hard to adhere to social distancing guidelines inside city shelters because the beds are arranged too close to together.
“But if those hotel rooms became available, it would reduce the overcrowding in the shelters,” said Dickerson.
Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams, also didn’t mince words about why the city is facing a homeless crisis during the pandemic.
“Before this crisis, government failed particular populations for quite some time, which is now being exacerbated and really magnified during this crisis,” he said. “We have 100,000 units of housing in the form of hotels, [and] we’re simply asking for 30,000 hotel rooms to help ease the congestion in the shelters where we have upwards of 60,000 people.”
The public advocate also echoed Dickerson’s comment about the impossibility of properly social distancing inside the city shelter system.
“If you have folks tight in the shelter, how do they exhibit social distancing?” Williams said. “We’re telling people to do things that they don’t have the ability to do because we failed them previously and we’re failing them now.”
Williams also noted that other cities and states have already taken the step to house their homeless populations in vacated hotel rooms.
Indeed, New Orleans, according to local news reports, is offering temporary housing in a hotel for 200 people.
And the Governor of Connecticut, Ned Lamont, issued an executive order to reduce the state’s regional homeless systems, according to the Hartford Courant.
“We say very often that we are a progressive city and state, but very often we’re behind other cities and states. Whether it’s New Orleans or Connecticut, there are other places that are already matching the tools that we have for the people who need it the most,” Williams added.
Councilman Stephen Levin, chair of the Committee on General Welfare, was asked about the feedback he’s gotten from the Department of Homeless Services [DHS] about sheltering homeless New Yorkers in hotel rooms.
He explained that DHS agrees with the premise, but sees problems reserving large numbers of hotel rooms.
“Every day that we allow the status quo to move forward, we are putting more people at risk, so it needs to happen.” Levin said nonetheless. “It needs to become operationalized by the end of this week.”
There obviously would be a significant price tag for the city and/or state to cover the cost of 30,000 hotel rooms. But the executive director of Strong Economy for All, Michael Kink, said that the Federal Reserve, under the CARES Act (the $2.2 trillion stimulus package legislation passed by Congress), has been encouraged to open a municipal lending facility to issue state and local bonds at nearly zero percent for 10 years for pandemic response needs.
“If we wanted the money to pay for putting people in hotel rooms, we can borrow the money and pay for it 10 years from now,” he said. “And if we wanted to borrow the money to retrofit hotel rooms so that they had kitchen facilities and laundry facilities…we can get that money from the Federal Reserve tomorrow.”
Kink noted that both NYC Comptroller, Scott Stringer and NYS Comptroller, Tom DiNapoli, have issued letters of support in favor of the Federal Reserve lending project; all that remains is the political will to make it happen.