Hotel used by DHS as shelter

Adi Talwar

A hotel in the Bronx is one of dozens used by the city to shelter homeless families.

Bedsheets decorated with cartoon characters hang from a curtain rod at a hotel in Morrisania, trinkets and household items line a windowsill at another hotel near JFK Airport — signs the sites are more than just temporary accommodations for out-of-town visitors.

Inside a motel in Howard Beach, families experiencing homelessness line up at dinner time to heat their packaged meals in the lone community microwave. Some parents stock coolers with ice because the rooms lack refrigerators.

“It was clean, but really small,” sanitation worker Sean Burt says of a Long Island City motel where he and his 4-year-old son stayed for about a month. Burt and his son have been homeless for nearly three years and have been assigned to various temporary shelters, including hotels. A hotel in Jamaica felt “isolated,” he says of the narrow corridors, the closed unit doors and the lack of common space. “They don’t want you to move around in there,” he says.

More than 50 years after New York City first began using commercial hotels to house homeless New Yorkers, the facilities continue to play a major role in allowing the city to meet a legal mandate for providing shelter to people experiencing homelessness. Yet the surging number of New Yorkers staying in hotel rooms paid for by the city comes at a major cost — to city finances, and to the emotional and physical wellbeing of occupants, particularly thousands of children.

A Department of Investigation raid on the offices of a major shelter-hotel service provider accused of financial malfeasance only highlights the persistent use of hotels — and their substandard level of programs and funding compared to traditional shelters.

“It has a detrimental impact on kids,” says Citizen’s Committee for Children of New York Associate Executive Director Raysa Rodriguez. “Not only is there limited space for walking, for homework, all the things we know kids need to grow up healthy — there are no designated spaces for recreational services, no play facilities.”

The city now pays for rooms in 83 commercial hotels to provide emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness, down from 91 in 2018 and 86 in June 2019; on par with the roughly 80 used in February 2017. Over the past three years, however, the number of homeless people that the city puts up in commercial hotel rooms has increased by 44 percent.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would end the use of commercial hotels for New Yorkers experiencing homelessness by 2023 as part of his 2017 “Turning the Tide on Homelessness” plan. At the time, there were about 7,500 homeless people residing in hotel rooms paid for by the city. Earlier this month, there were 11,750, according to the Department of Homeless Services.

As with most aspects of New York City’s homelessness crisis, families with children are disproportionately affected: They account for more than two-thirds of the hotel-shelter occupants — 7,902 people, including 4,087 kids, DHS reports. During the last fiscal year, families stayed in DHS shelter an average of 446 days, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. That’s roughly a year and three months, often shifting among various locations including hotels.

“No shelter is an optimal place for families with children,” says Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier. “But a lot of problems are unique to hotels — families are in one small room. There’s no cooking facility. A lot of hotels are clustered in far-flung corners of the city that are not accessible to transit.”

“It’s a model we would rather the city not use” she adds.

Drivers of a surging hotel population

A severe lack of affordable housing drives the city’s unprecedented family homelessness crisis, according to advocates and analysts. Commercial hotels have served as a stop-gap shelter solution since Mayor John Lindsay’s Administration, but they are expensive. Last year, hotel rooms and services averaged $237 per night, compared to $158 for traditional shelters, DHS reports.

“Hotels have been a way to very quickly ramp up capacity,” says Homeless Services United Executive Director Catherine Trapani, who leads a coalition of nonprofit service providers. The problem, she says, is that “people end up staying nine months in one room in a hotel with their kids.”

Roughly 1,000 fewer families with children stayed in DHS shelters in December 2019 compared to December 2016, just before de Blasio announced the plan to phase out hotels. Nevertheless, the shelter-hotel population has increased by more than 4,000 people. Two specific issues account for the surge, advocates say.

First, the city has made progress toward another 2017 commitment: ending the use of “cluster site” apartments as temporary shelter by 2021. The privately owned cluster site units are known for their substandard and even dangerous conditions. In December 2016, two baby sisters were killed when a radiator scalded them with steam in a cluster site apartment, prompting the effort to eliminate their use.

At the same time, the city has been unable to meet its goal of building new shelters, including family shelters — often because of virulent local opposition to shelter development and a lack of political will among local leaders. Hotels are the means for absorbing individuals pushed out of other settings.

“We’d like to see movement on getting out of hotels but that depends on a significant reduction in need and demand of shelters for families and children,” Trapani says.

Less established organizations typically run services in the shelter-hotels, exacerbating the spatial constraints and limited funding, multiple advocates and city officials say.

The Jamaica-based organization Childrens Community Services has operated services in at least 26 commercial hotels that shelter families under a city contract worth nearly $370 million. The financial dealings of CCS, a relatively new nonprofit with an opaque leadership structure and zero prior footprint in the social service field, have raised questions. Following a long-term investigation, DOI seized records from CCS Monday after discovering “truly problematic” information, de Blasio told NY1’s Errol Louis Monday night.

De Blasio said the city will likely assign a receiver to take over finances while DHS looks for a new nonprofit to take over. “You have to keep providing services to homeless folks,” he said.

The problem is that more established, “mission-driven” organizations tend to steer clear of the hotels, say multiple nonprofit providers and advocates. This leaves a void for organizations with fewer connections to permanent housing and city services.

“There are not a lot of support services [and] it’s hard to get good outcomes,” said one person familiar with the early DOI investigation into CCS. Hotels

DHS and CCS did not respond to a request for comment about the investigation.

“There’s a real lack of parity for how we fund services at hotels,” says Rodriguez. “The budget at a [traditional] shelter is much more adequate than hotels. The result is that services are not delivered.”

Absurd contrasts and uneven conditions

Rosa Marie Febo lived in a Howard Beach hotel with her daughter for a month when they first became homeless. Each night, she says, residents waited in a long line in the lobby to warm up their “school lunch style” trays of food.

“There was no fridge, no stoves. One microwave in the lobby,” she says. “It was just crazy. Some people have babies.”

“If you have food stamps you can’t store the food unless you have a cooler,” she adds. “Every time me and my daughter would buy cold cuts, we’d have to eat them right away.”

Febo says she never saw a caseworker for the first month that she and her daughter stayed at the Howard Beach hotel. After she advocated for a move, DHS eventually transferred the family to a cluster site in Harlem, where her daughter goes to school. The unit will soon become an actual apartment and Febo says she will sign a one-year lease to stay there with the rent covered by her housing voucher.

Homelessness is a shifting experience marked by uncertainty and hotel stays vary for families. Some may stay in a hotel for only a few days before DHS transfers them to another shelter. Others move in and out of the shelter system depending on their circumstances, and are assigned to a hotel each time they return to the DHS intake facility.

A young woman named Allyson has lived in a Central Brooklyn hotel room with her husband and 1-year-old son since July 2019. Their room has a microwave and minifridge, but mice roam the floors. She won’t put her son on the ground, she says.

“It’s a regular hotel, but it’s not for a child,” Allyson says. “We put his baby food in the microwave and around there to store.”

Burt, the sanitation worker, says he had much better experiences at shelter-hotels in Long Island City and Jamaica. Both had refrigerators and microwaves as well as a separate bed for him and his son. The family nows stays at a traditional shelter in Jamaica. “Anything to keep people off the street and get people back on their feet is a good idea,” he says.

The use of hotels as emergency shelter fosters absurd contrasts. Occupants like Febo can’t store perishable food, but housekeepers come in regularly to tidy up. The rooms can lack a microwave or stove, but televisions feature free cable.

Families who apply for shelter at the Bronx intake facility have little say in what kind of setting they end up in. After they visit the intake site, DHS assigns them to an available location until the agency determines their eligibility for continued shelter stays. At that point, the city often shifts them to another site, ideally closer to their home communities — though that is not guaranteed.

“It’s completely random and there are differences in services” depending on the type of setting, says Trapani of the assignment process. “We need to, at minimum, ensure that any hotel-shelter contract has the same service funding level as their counterparts in Tier II shelters.”

“Tier II” family shelters are apartment-like settings with on-site social workers. They are typically run by larger, more established organizations that operate programs across the service spectrum, including permanent supportive housing.

“When you look at what families need to be stabilized, those resources are very limited in hotels,” says Rodriguez, of CCC. “There are no social workers, but that doesn’t even touch on issues like nutrition and food and what families in hotels have access to. There are no kitchens.”

The city has seemed reluctant to spend more for services inside hotels because of the goal of phasing out their use, Rodriguez says.

“At the same time we know there are thousands of families residing in hotels,” she says. “Investing in services for people who are there now does not equate to a continued acceptance of hotels as shelters.”

More services in the meantime?

Ending the use of hotels demands a serious increase in truly affordable units set aside for the homeless. That’s a key priority for CCC and the Family Homelessness Coalition in the current city budget process.

In the short-term, phasing out hotels requires the creation of more dedicated family shelters.

Councilmember Stephen Levin is pushing a measure to increase the value of housing vouchers for homeless New Yorkers. The city’s voucher program, known as CityFHEPS, covers the cost of rent up to a certain monthly amount, depending on household size. The maximum amounts pale in comparison to market rates in most neighborhoods, however.

“We need a voucher program that actually works,” Levin says. “We can build new shelters, I support that, but we have to have a voucher program that functions and get the amount raised to fair market rate.”

As the city works toward those goals, agencies must ensure that the hotels housing more than 4,000 kids provide more complete services, the Family Homelessness Coalition said in response to de Blasio executive budget proposal

“When shelter is unavoidable, families should be able to access support services while in shelter to help them find a permanent home,” the coalition said. “Social supports must be embedded in hotels as long as families are sheltered in these settings.

CCC and the FHC are fighting for funding to enable the service providers that operate services at the hotels to hire dedicated social workers and recreation specialists. Levin has taken up the cause, which failed to make last year’s budget.

“If they’re in Tier IIs then why on earth are they not in hotels, which are arguably more traumatic?” Levin says.

Advocates are also exploring mobile laundry and cooking facilities, but there is not yet any concrete plan to provide them.

Adding social workers is the bare minimum for confronting the enormous problem of family homelessness, he concedes. “Social workers will mitigate the negative impact, but they won’t reverse it,” he says. “We have to get out of hotels as quickly as possible.”

City Limits’ series on family homelessness in New York City is supported by Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York and The Family Homelessness Coalition. City Limits is solely responsible for the content and editorial direction.