Street Homelessness Joint Command Center

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor de Blasio visits the Street Homelessness Joint Command Center in Lower Manhattan in January.

Homeless New Yorkers can’t stay home. And many are right to fear the danger of living on the streets, where they are subject to sweeps and other abusive policing, or in crowded shelters, which have become hotspots for coronavirus transmission.  

Without adequate options for housing or safe shelter, more homeless New Yorkers have been driven to the transit system in recent months, as a safer option than the alternatives.

On subway platforms and on trains, homeless people have been targeted for aggressive policing and subject to repeated indignities and dehumanization.

Now, homeless New Yorkers find themselves in an even worse situation – because subways have been shut down overnight for the first time in our transit system’s history.

Mayor de Blasio must address the short- and long-term housing and safety needs of homeless individuals, instead of offering inadequate partial-solutions that scapegoat, pathologize and criminalize our homeless neighbors.

Even before the current pandemic, the city and state were failing homeless New Yorkers. 

The crisis of lack of permanent affordable housing has only worsened in recent weeks as COVID-19 has rapidly spread. 

As numerous news outlets have reported, people in crowded shelters are unable to practice adequate social distancing. At the same time, many shelter staff and residents have had inconsistent access to masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant cleaners that can protect against the virus. 

More than 650 positive cases of COVID-19 were identified and 50 COVID-19 deaths reported in shelters just in the last month. And we know this isn’t a complete picture, as testing has not been comprehensive. Clearly, congregate shelter settings are not safe for homeless people or shelter workers. 

The streets aren’t much better for homeless New Yorkers, either.

At de Blasio’s direction, the NYPD continues to engage in homeless sweeps even though the CDC has provided clear guidelines stating that sweeps should not occur during the pandemic “unless individual housing units are made available.”

The best long-term solution is for the city and state to ensure permanent affordable housing for all New Yorkers, while ending police sweeps and other abusive policing of homeless New Yorkers. But until that happens, de Blasio can and should secure vacant hotel rooms for homeless New Yorkers, including those who are street homeless.

That’s why the #HomelessCantStayHome campaign is calling on de Blasio to set aside at least 30,000 hotel rooms for homeless individuals. These New Yorkers should be offered individual rooms with private bathrooms. It has already been confirmed that federal funding can and will pay for the bulk of the costs for hotel rooms designated for homeless New Yorkers.

So far, only a few thousand homeless individuals have been provided hotel rooms since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – often shared rooms, against guidance related to self-isolation.

That’s only a small percentage of the total number of homeless individuals who need safe places to self-isolate. 30,000 is the minimum number of hotel rooms needed to address the immediate needs of homeless New Yorkers to be able to safely practice social distancing.

The 30,000 hotel rooms can be paid for with federal money. And the hotel industry has said it would rather get paid for providing rooms to homeless New Yorkers than allow these rooms to remain empty.

Currently, there are more than 100,000 vacant hotel rooms in New York City.

So, what’s the hold up, Mayor de Blasio? 

Peoples’ lives are at stake.  New York needs you to take action immediately.

Nikita Price was the Civil Rights Organizer at Picture the Homeless, part of Communities United for Police Reform leadership, and a member of the #HomelessCantStayHome campaign. He passed away on May 21, 2020. Carolyn Martinez-Class is the Organizing and Policy Coordinator at Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), an organizational member of #HomelessCantStayHome.