The Unhoused Don’t Want to “Go Back to Normal”

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S1: Earlier this month, a modified school bus pulled up in front of a hotel in midtown Manhattan and the standoff began Thursday because the bus was there to take homeless New Yorkers away.

S2: Those who knew it would be happening had dreaded this moving day at the four points on Fortieth Street. It was a temporary home for the last year for dozens of men.

S1: The city, these men, they’ve been living in the hotel rent free, courtesy of the city for more than a year, all part of a program to help stop the spread of covid by keeping them out of congregate shelters now that infection rates are down and vaccines are available. The city has been trying to move these men and some have refused to go. I’ve worked hard and all I

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S3: ask for affordable housing.

S1: For some of New York’s UN housed, social distancing has come with an unanticipated upside keycards and cable TV and private bathrooms at hotels that were suddenly empty of tourists. It is not hard to imagine why they wouldn’t want to leave.

S4: I definitely spoke with many people who reported that being in the hotel gave them greater peace of mind. They weren’t as worried about getting sick from the virus, but they also felt like they had more privacy to just be a human being and to get their life back on track in whatever way seems most appropriate for them.

S1: Jacquelyn Simmon is a senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, a court appointed monitor of the shelter system in New York. She says it’s hard for a person who has not experienced homelessness to imagine just how big an impact this relocation program had.

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S4: One thing that so many of us take for granted during this pandemic is access to Wi-Fi. And many of the Kongregate shelters in the city don’t have Wi-Fi, but many of the hotels do. So I know some people who were able to get remote jobs because they were in a hotel that they were worried they were going to lose when they moved back to a Kongregate shelter where they would no longer have access to Wi-Fi. I know some people who are even involved in census efforts remotely and tested traced efforts like really essential jobs that that people were were able to do because they were in hotels.

S1: The question for advocates like Jacquelyn 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,

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S4: the hotels were clearly not a permanent solution. I think everyone wants to move into permanent housing, but for a while they at least gave people a sense of what it would be like to have their own space.

S1: There’s that old phrase like, don’t let a good crisis go to waste, where, you know, for someone who’s been advocating for a long time when something happens that really lays bare the problem you’ve been talking about for forever, it can also be an opportunity for you to push the ball forward in a way that wasn’t possible a couple of years ago, a couple of decades ago. And I wonder if you see it that way.

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S4: I personally definitely feel that way. And yet here we are months into this horrific pandemic and our elected leaders are all too quick to just go back to what we had before instead of actually rethinking the way in which we provide housing supports to people and to help people move into permanent housing. So I, I think we we have an opportunity, but I don’t know if we have the political will at the highest levels of government to actually seize upon that opportunity.

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S1: Today on the show, the saga of homeless New Yorkers during this pandemic, it is not over yet. What happens when getting back to normal is the last thing you want. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. New York City’s housed population is unique. It’s large, roughly 80 thousand people in the city of eight 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 that’s an obligation to house people in need established by a state Supreme Court ruling back in the 70s. This program is overseen by the Department of Homeless Services, or DHS. But the law doesn’t specify standards for what shelters need to look like. And when demand is high, which with tens of thousands of homeless, it often is, people can get crammed into spaces that are uncomfortable, possibly unsafe, especially during a pandemic.

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S4: Some shelters might have a dozen people in beds in one room. So the beds, according to the state guidance and the Calahan consent decree, have to be three feet apart. And there are certain ratios, three feet, three feet. Right. And each person gets a locker and often the locker might be three feet wide. So there’s just sort of a locker between two beds in a room with many people. Now, there are some shelters where there are private rooms, there are some where you might just have one other person there. But it’s really luck of the draw when you become homeless, what type of configuration your sleeping area is going to have. So having been in those facilities and seeing for myself what the configurations were, I knew that if we were ever dealing with an airborne virus, you could easily have an outbreak in a shelter immediately. And with many health crises, people without the basic security of a home are often those who suffer the most.

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S1: So can you tell me about that? Like, was there a surge in cases that like what did it take to get the city to take this seriously?

S4: Yeah, I mean, to go back to March and April 20, 20, we also need to remember that it was difficult to get a test for covid-19 and those early days. Right. We didn’t have the adequate testing capacity. So it was also very challenging to even know what the real case rates were. But I do think that when they started seeing more people getting sick, more people going to the hospital and and instances where there were, you know, if someone got sick in a dorm and now you had to quarantine their entire the 10 other people who were in a dorm with them, I think that was 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 because the hospitals were also being overrun. And when they when they looked at those numbers, I think they realized that it would be more effective and much safer to help proactively protect people by moving them into private or semi private hotel rooms instead of waiting for more outbreaks and more people will be quarantined.

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S1: Hotels have always been part of the city’s patchwork efforts to meet the right to shelter law. Often, people who shelters couldn’t accommodate would get sent to a hotel for a night or two, though these might not have been the nicest places to say. When it became clear just how high covid infection rates in congregate shelters could get, the city started moving people into hotels en masse, about 9000 people total. I think it’s important to point out that the city making this move to put people in hotels, a significant number of people, it was a little bit of a bailout for the hotel industry. Right. Like New York relies on tourists who just weren’t coming.

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S4: Yeah, and I I think 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 sort of 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. So I do think that, yeah, the many, many hotel incentives lined up, many hotel owners were were very pleased with the possibility of filling up their rooms, regardless of whether the people were tourists or happen to be those without homes.

S1: Yeah, and my understanding is that. They were placed in hotels all over the place and more than a hundred hotels, so a lot of different hotels, but where those hotels were, it didn’t necessarily overlap with where shelters had been. Right. And so that was a change for communities,

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S4: is that right? That’s true. And we do have shelter because we have a historic homelessness crisis, even predating the pandemic and because we do have the right to shelter. There are many, many shelters around the city and they are throughout a variety of neighborhoods in the city. But I do think it’s fair to say that there are some neighborhoods that had people moved into hotels nearby that maybe hadn’t maybe they didn’t have as many people in shelters prior to this transition. So I think that that did create some community pushback, unfortunately, in certain neighborhoods like the Upper West Side.

S1: Yeah, I mean, 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 was the lucerna on the Upper West Side, and it was like a laser focus on a single place.

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S5: Some neighbors of a hotel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side are concerned about a temporary homeless shelter being set up there. Hundreds of homeless men now living in the Lucerna Hotel.

S6: There needs to be a balance of being able to take care of your mental health and homelessness and ensuring the people that live in the neighborhoods have the safety and the reassurance and quality of life. And the problem is, though, is that the mayor that we have completely or I just I can’t doesn’t know how to take care of it.

S1: How did the tension start?

S4: So the tension started and I think began to dominate all of the headlines 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 I think that too often that is used to refer to the life and the quality of life of stably housed people at the expense of considering the the quality of life of people who are less fortunate.

S1: 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 housed in compromising positions on the steps of places they thought they shouldn’t be.

S4: 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 one homeless. And to one of the people who had been placed in the Lucerna. 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 seen. And even if that person might have actually been had nothing to do with the Lucerna Hotel, that person might be unsheltered. That person might be. 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. So human beings need a place to urinate and defecate. And if the city won’t provide a an indoor dignified space for people to relieve themselves, of course, you’re going to have an increase in public urination.

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S1: 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 like peeing where I live. And what you’re doing, which I think is really interesting and and wise, is you’re saying, but OK, but why are they doing that? Like, does anyone really want to do that? And let’s look at the underlying causes rather than the person doing it.

S4: 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. You know, it’s it’s how do we address the root causes of these issues instead of just pushing them out of sight?

S1: 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 they didn’t stop at just complaining on Facebook.

S4: They wanted them out. Right. And they they pooled funds and hired a politically well-connected lawyer who sued the city to try to displace people. Unfortunately, Mayor de Blasio took their side instead of listening to the homeless residents, which was really just just so demoralizing and disappointing to see our mayor just so quick to adopt talking points from NIMBY residents instead of defending the most vulnerable.

S1: How did he take their side? What did

S4: he say? He so starting in about September, maybe August or September, twenty twenty, when reporters asked him about the complaints that some of the residents in the Upper West Side were making, he 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 Lucerna.

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S5: I went and saw for myself on the Upper West Side last week and what I saw was not acceptable and had to be addressed because the idea is to always try and balance the need to serve homeless folks with the need for community to continue to go about its life. And I think just we had a reality here where we have to not have so many people in hotels. It’s not what we wanted. To begin with, the people in hotels,

S4: he adopted this ridiculous plan at one point to move the men from the Lucerna 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 Lucerna there anymore. And and frankly, the Lucerna was one of the first hotels to be emptied when Mayor de Blasio decided to pronounce the pandemic was over and the people needed to move to move back to congregate shelters.

S1: After the break, when the city tried to empty the unused from hotels, not everyone was willing to leave. When did it become clear that this experiment in putting many more people were homeless into hotels, when did it become clear that this effort was going to be coming to an end?

S4: So 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 Kongregate shelters. So that was our understanding was that everyone was waiting for the state and then there would be a deliberate process.

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S1: Is that what happened?

S4: No, because then in mid-June and one of Mayor de Blasio is daily press conferences, he announced that he thought it was time to end the hotel program and to move people back to concrete shelters and that he was just waiting on the state’s approval.

S5: It’s important to note that as the situation, the health situation has continued to improve, we’re going to start the process of figuring out where we can get homeless individuals back into safe shelter facilities and reduce the reliance on hotels. Hotels is certainly not where we want to be in general, and we’re going to start that process immediately.

S4: Reporters asked Governor Cuomo about this. Governor 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. 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.

S1: So all of a sudden a school bus just shows up at the hotel and it’s like everyone get on right.

S4: 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 concrete 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.

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S1: The Department of Homeless Services was scrambling to meet this deadline set by the mayor, but not everyone was willing to go on July 2nd. Twenty five homeless men staying at the four points Sheraton Hotel in Midtown locked themselves in and refused to transfer.

S4: I do think that 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 and some people decided to take a stand and to organize to call for something different. And I think that, you know, we constantly hear people who are in shelters and on the streets experience and express this, the sense of powerlessness. And that was an effort by some people to reclaim that power and to engage in civil disobedience to to to assert that they’re human beings. And I think it really did shed a light on the the real people who are too often being shuffled around and are 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 impact of those decisions.

S1: Advocates took their cues from the homeless protesters on July 8th, 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,

S4: 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. Again, we think that’s it. Ultimately, I don’t think anyone should be moved back to a Kongregate shelter while the pandemic is still ongoing. But at least for these people who have disabilities and severe health needs, that they should be accommodated as the city is legally obligated to do instead of just being rushed back to a Kongregate facility.

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S1: So how many people are still in hotels and how many people have been moved out?

S4: Do we know they were not quite halfway done with moving people out of hotels? So more than eight thousand 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 they’re there. Requests 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.

S1: 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

S4: so I mean. I almost see that question is irrelevant in a sense, because I, I think as mayor of New York City, your job is to protect and defend New Yorkers, including New Yorkers, without homes. So it shouldn’t we shouldn’t be facing our 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, I think we have significant numbers of hotels that were never part of this shelter program whatsoever. I think 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 I think that that comment was telling that there not many of them have appreciated the revenue and and were willing to shelter people. But again, I don’t think we should be making public policy based on how do we attract tourists. I think we should be making public policy based on how do we protect lives.

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S1: Another reason the dollars and cents of this decision don’t quite add up is that the city is leaving FEMA money on the table. Earlier in the pandemic, President Biden announced the feds would reimburse cities for the money they spent on housing homeless people somewhere other than Kongregate shelters that order. It’s not set to expire until September. And over the last year, it saved the city a ton of money. In some ways. I wonder if you. Look back on this last year and the whole crisis of the coronavirus. And you wonder kind of whether this might end in a different place for you and for your advocacy and what you’re hoping, because it sounds like you’re still locked in a battle with the city, you’re trying to figure things out. Where do you hope it ends?

S4: I mean, I think that. I 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, because I, I personally had coronavirus in February twenty twenty one. And I cannot imagine if I had been dealing with that sickness without even having my own home to be safe in. And I can’t imagine the fear and the uncertainty that people have been experiencing for the past year plus of living through a pandemic without a home of their own. So I think that this 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, the city, the state and the federal 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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S1: Jacquelyn, thank you so much for joining me.

S4: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. This was a wonderful conversation.

S1: Jacquelyn Simmon is a senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Danielle Hewitt Alan Schwarz, Divorce Land, Mary Wilson and Carmel Delshad. Quick note of thanks. We used a little audio from City Limits reporter David Brand at the top of the show. We are grateful he was there to talk to Anthony Campbell about why he was refusing to leave a hotel earlier this month. We are led by Allison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary desk or just come back to this feed. I’ll be here tomorrow. I’ll catch you then.