Politics

Homeless New Yorkers Don’t Want to Go Back to Normal

Protesters stand beneath and around an awning that says Lucerne.
Protesters gather in support of the unhoused men living at the Lucerne hotel on Sept. 9 in New York City. Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

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Earlier this month, a modified school bus pulled up in front of a hotel in midtown Manhattan and a standoff began. The bus was there to take homeless New Yorkers away. These men had been living in this hotel, rent free, courtesy of the city, for more than a year—all part of an effort to stop the spread of COVID, by keeping them out of congregate shelters. Now that infection rates are down and vaccines have become available, the city has been trying to move these men. And some refused to go.

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For some of New York’s unhoused, social distancing has come with an unanticipated upside—key cards and cable TV and private bathrooms, at hotels suddenly emptied of tourists. It’s not hard to imagine why they wouldn’t want to leave.

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Jacquelyn Simone, a senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, says it’s hard for a person who hasn’t experienced homelessness to imagine just how big an impact this relocation program had. “The hotels were clearly not a permanent solution. Everyone wants to move into permanent housing,” she said, “but for a while, they at least gave people a sense of what it would be like to have their own space.”

The question now for advocates like Simone is whether it’s possible to convince the city to use this temporary respite from business as usual to rethink the way it treats the homeless more generally. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Simone about what happens when “getting back to normal” is the last thing some people want. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: New York City’s unhoused population is unique. It is large—roughly 80,000 people in this city of 8 million don’t have a place they regularly call home. It’s also one of the only places in the country with a “right to shelter” law, an obligation to house people in need, established by a state Supreme Court ruling back in 1979. This program is overseen by the Department of Homeless Services, or DHS. But the law doesn’t specify standards for what shelters should look like. And when demand is high—which, with tens of thousands homeless, it often is—people can get crammed into spaces that are uncomfortable and possibly unsafe, especially in a pandemic.

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Was there a surge in cases? Like, what did it take to get the city to take this seriously?

Jacquelyn Simone: To go back to March and April 2020, we also need to remember that it was difficult to get a test for COVID-19 in those early days. We didn’t have the adequate testing capacity. So it was also very challenging to even know what the real case rates were. But when they started seeing more people getting sick, more people going to the hospital, and instances where someone got sick in a dorm and now you had to quarantine the 10 other people who were in a dorm with them, that was sort of a wake-up call to DHS because they had initially created some quarantine and isolation hotel capacity for people who had been exposed to COVID-19 or had been diagnosed with COVID-19, but who did not require hospital-level care. And when they looked at those numbers, they realized that it would be more effective and much safer to help proactively protect people by moving them into private or semiprivate hotel rooms instead of waiting for more outbreaks and more people to be quarantined.

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It’s important to point out that the city making this move to put a significant number of people in hotels, it was a little bit of a bailout for the hotel industry, right? New York relies on tourists who just weren’t coming.

We should be making decisions based on public health and based on how to protect the most vulnerable people and not on finances. But you also can’t deny that this was a win-win where you had a dearth of tourists and a hotel industry that was calling out for assistance at the same time that you had an urgent need for private spaces for homeless people.

My understanding is that they were placed in hotels all over the place, but where those hotels were, it didn’t necessarily overlap with where shelters had been. And so that was a change for communities, is that right? 

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It’s fair to say that there are some neighborhoods that had people moved into hotels nearby that maybe didn’t have as many people in shelters prior to this transition. So I think that did create some community pushback, unfortunately, in certain neighborhoods like the Upper West Side.

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Yeah, there were so many hotels that benefited from this program and so many people in hotels during this year in the city. But this spring, the focus came to be really on one, which is the Lucerne on the Upper West Side. How did the tension start?

The tension started because there had been a lot of chatter in social media groups from Upper West Side stably housed residents about perceived quality-of-life issues. And I always say “quality of life” in quotation marks, because too often that is used to refer to the quality of life of stably housed people at the expense of considering the quality of life of people who are less fortunate.

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And we should be clear about what these residents were complaining about. They were often posting pictures of people they assumed were living in a hotel and unhoused in compromising positions on the steps of places they thought they shouldn’t be.

Yeah, it was, frankly, a lot of harassment of people who were having a tough time. And I think there were a lot of assumptions made as well that if someone was sitting on a bench in the median that that person must be homeless and one of the people who had been placed in the Lucerne. So there was also just this knee-jerk vilification of all of the people who were in the hotels as if they were responsible for all of the issues that people might have been seeing—even if that person might have actually had nothing to do with the Lucerne Hotel.

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There were complaints of public urination, for example, without a recognition that for months advocates had been sounding the alarm about the fact that public restrooms closed when places like libraries and rec centers shut down. Human beings need a place to urinate and defecate. And if the city won’t provide an indoor, dignified space for people to relieve themselves, of course you’re going to have an increase in public urination.

That’s such an interesting way to see it, where you’re seeing these residents who are upset about something that I think many people would understand, which is I don’t want people peeing where I live, and what you’re doing, which I think is really interesting and wise, is you’re saying, “But OK, but why are they doing that? Like, does anybody really want to do that? And let’s look at the underlying causes rather than the person doing it.

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Right, exactly. And it’s that question of not saying I don’t want to see this in my neighborhood versus I don’t know why such a wealthy city is failing to provide for the basic needs of its residents. How do we address the root causes of these issues instead of just pushing them out of sight?

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What’s the most charitable way to see these Upper West Side residents who got so upset about these homeless folks being at this particular hotel? Because they didn’t stop at just complaining on Facebook. They wanted them out.

They pooled funds and hired a politically well-connected lawyer who sued the city to try to displace people. Unfortunately, Mayor Bill de Blasio took their side instead of listening to the homeless residents, which was really just so demoralizing and disappointing to see our mayor so quick to adopt talking points from NIMBY residents instead of defending the most vulnerable.

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How did he take their side? What did he say?

So starting in about August or September 2020, when reporters asked him about the complaints that some of the residents in the Upper West Side were making, he said that he saw the conditions in the neighborhood and it was unacceptable, and it was time to move the men out of the Lucerne.

He adopted this ridiculous plan at one point to move the men from the Lucerne to another hotel, which would have ultimately displaced four different shelters’ worth of people, including families with kids right before school started that, fortunately, we were able to halt thanks to a significant amount of advocacy. But it was all just an effort to placate this well-connected group of people who didn’t want the men at the Lucerne there anymore. And frankly, the Lucerne was one of the first hotels to be emptied when Mayor de Blasio decided to pronounce that the pandemic was over and the people needed to move back to congregate shelters.

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When did it become clear that this experiment in putting many more people who were homeless into hotels was going to be coming to an end?

Throughout the spring, we had been in communication with the Department of Homeless Services who mentioned that they had submitted a plan to the state that the state had to approve for returning to congregate shelters. Our understanding was that everyone was waiting for the state and then there would be a deliberate process.

Is that what happened?

No, because then in mid-June at one of de Blasio’s daily press conferences, he announced that he thought it was time to end the hotel program and to move people back to congregate shelters and that he was just waiting on the state’s approval.

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Reporters asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo about this. Cuomo then said that the state did not need to approve the city’s plan and that the city could go ahead and start moving people back. The state issued revised guidance for shelters that read more as casual suggestions for what people might want to do to maybe make people safe in shelters. They’re incredibly weak. And pretty soon thereafter, the Department of Homeless Services started a large-scale effort to transfer thousands of people back into congregate shelters.

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People were just being hastily moved onto buses and back to congregate shelters without proper notification or communication about what was going on—people who had disabilities, including those that would put them at greater risk should they contract COVID-19.

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So all of a sudden the school bus just shows up at the hotel. And it’s like, “Everyone get on.

Right. And some people had been placed in a single occupancy room, not by accident, but because they had an underlying condition that placed them at severe risk of significant illness or death if they were to contract COVID-19. So that person should not be moved back to a congregate shelter. But sometimes they were even so, or people didn’t know that they could request a reasonable accommodation for a disability and be moved to a different hotel instead. It was just complete chaos on the ground.

DHS was scrambling to meet the deadline set by the mayor. But not everyone was willing to go: On July 2, 25 homeless men staying at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel in Midtown locked themselves in their rooms and refused to transfer.

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That event really highlighted the frustration of many people that they feel like they have no control over their own lives. They weren’t communicated with adequately to know where they were being taken or when they were being moved. And some people decided to take a stand and to organize to call for something different. We constantly hear people who are in shelters and on the streets experience and express this sense of powerlessness. And that was an effort by some people to reclaim that power and to engage in civil disobedience to assert that they’re human beings. And it really did shed a light on the real people who are too often being shuffled around and having their rights violated at the whims of a mayor who can stand up at a press conference and say it’s time to move people back without actually thinking about the real human impacts of those decisions.

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Advocates took their cues from the homeless protesters. On July 8, Coalition for the Homeless and its allies filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the city’s transfer of hotel residents back into congregate shelters. And they won—though it’s a temporary victory.

The judge on Tuesday ordered that the city did have to pause these transfers until they refined their process and did actual notification and assessment procedures to make sure that people aren’t falling through the cracks. Ultimately, I don’t think anyone should be moved back to a congregate shelter while the pandemic is still ongoing. But at least for these people who have disabilities and severe health needs, they should be accommodated as the city is legally obligated to do instead of just being rushed back to a congregate facility.

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So how many people are still in hotels and how many people have been moved out? Do we know?

They were not quite halfway done with moving people out of hotels. More than 8,000 people remain in hotels. Now, the city has set up some hotels specifically for people who need reasonable accommodations due to a disability. So some people might be moved out of one hotel that’s closing and to another hotel while their request for reasonable accommodation is pending, for example. So, that is another factor in all of this. But, thousands of people have already been moved out of the shelters and back into congregate settings. So we also want the city to be accurately assessing whether anyone fell through the cracks in that process and should have actually been moved to another hotel as well.

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The mayor claims that basically he needs to free up hotel space so tourists can come back into the city. Is that something that’s happening?

I almost see that question as irrelevant in a sense, because I think as mayor of New York City, your job is to protect and defend New Yorkers, including New Yorkers without homes. We shouldn’t be basing our shelter system and our policies on a desire to attract tourists. We should be basing them on what is going to save lives and protect the most vulnerable New Yorkers. But even so, we have significant numbers of hotels that were never part of this shelter program whatsoever. In the New York Times, for example, someone representing the hotel association had commented that many hotel owners want this shelter program to continue because the industry has not actually rebounded yet. I personally can’t speak to what the economic forces of the tourism and hotel industry are, but that comment was telling.

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Another reason the dollars and cents of this decision don’t quite add up: The city is leaving FEMA money on the table. Earlier in the pandemic, President Joe Biden announced the feds would reimburse cities for the money they spent on housing homeless people somewhere besides congregate shelters. That order isn’t set to expire until September—and over the past year, it’s saved NYC a ton of money.

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I wonder if you look back on this last year and the whole crisis of the coronavirus and wonder whether this might end in a different place for you and for your advocacy and what you’re hoping for, because it sounds like you’re still locked in a battle with your city. Where do you hope it ends?

I have been trying for years now to fight for housing as a human right, but I think that the trauma of the past year has really given even more momentum and even more energy for that fight. I think that the horrors, frankly, of the past year have really galvanized many of us to fight more aggressively for housing as a human right and to call for all levels of government to really invest in permanent housing instead of rationing housing assistance and letting people languish in shelters and on the streets, whether or not we’re in the midst of a public health crisis.

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