‘I’m enormously grateful that my patients are safer now with private rooms and bathrooms in what would be an otherwise empty hotel.’

Center for Urban Community Services

Nurse Practitioner Alvarez with a patient.

The New York City Department of Homeless Services moved the entire single, adult shelter system to hotels to allow for social distancing during the COVID pandemic.  As a nurse practitioner in a congregate shelter, this was a relief to me. In May, our 100 bed shelter for men was relocated from the Bronx to the Belnord Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, after a terrifying March and April. I was constantly worried that asymptomatic spread was lurking among my patients and at any moment an outbreak could erupt and potentially kill staff, shelter and neighborhood residents.  

At the congregate shelter we prepared for the worst, checking oxygen tanks and defibrillators, screening for symptoms, and making all possible social distancing accommodations. We furiously wiped down all surfaces and posted signs and reminders of symptoms and when to seek care. We saved lives, but we also got lucky. We are essential workers and know the importance of interventions and reducing risk, while also recognizing that shared dorms are dangerous in the time of COVID-19.  

I’m enormously grateful that my patients are safer now with private rooms and bathrooms in what would be an otherwise empty hotel. Adjusting to this new setting has certainly been challenging for our staff and clients, but I feel lucky to be part of a shared humanity that recognizes each individual’s worth and deserving of safety. On the other hand, I’ve been surprised and disappointed at the public outcry and negative media attention directed at our clients.   

My patients are like you and me, except they do not have a home, and their struggles are much harder.  They are funny and laugh at my jokes. They grant me their trust if I earn it. They tell me to get home safe and ask, “How was your weekend?” on Monday mornings. They hold the elevator. In pre-COVID times, they high-five me when their blood pressure improves. Now, they elbow-bump me. They ask good questions and they worry about COVID-19. They wear masks. They struggle and survive. 

As a medical provider, it is part of my job to advocate for the health and safety of my patients.  To hunker down at home during a viral pandemic is a privilege that residents of congregate shelter do not have. I have a responsibility to care for people, housed or not, and caring is about more than just prescribing medication. It’s about looking after, protecting, and defending from harm. Right now, a hotel room is the best way to protect my patients, and it is saving their lives. 

Kathleen Alvarez is a nurse practitioner with the Center for Urban Community Services (CUCS). She provides primary medical care to individuals in shelters and supportive housing sites in Manhattan and the Bronx.

6 thoughts on “Opinion: Hotels Save Homeless Lives

  1. Outrages decision by city government to move adult male population who are homeless drug addicts, mentally ill, sex offenders to heavily populated family neighborhoods where are schools on every block. Now kids can observe defecation on streets, fellatio, etc. very ‘humane’ decision!

  2. This is outrageous article. To dump mentally ill and drug addicts in the middle of residential neighborhoods is irresponsible and criminalz

  3. Kathleen, thank you for your service and commitment to the wellbeing of these people. Remember that most people who read this who are on your side won’t comment at all, but, will feel better knowing that you are doing what you’re doing and it will restore their hope and their faith in the goodness of people. Those who have succumbed to bitterness will always be the loudest and nastiest, because they are sadly lacking the kindness, attention and compassion that you so bravely give every day to those who end up in your care. They need healing too of course, but that’s not your concern.

  4. If any of the detractors had a homeless relative in your care they would see things differently. Thank you for your advocacy and brave resilience.

  5. CUCS is a dedicated agency and while some choose to not understand why this move into the hotel is a benefit for all, I applaud the decision.

  6. Kathleen, thank you for the important work that you have been doing and continue to do. I wholeheartedly agree that, in a time of pandemic, congregate shelters are an unnecessary risk, and that moving the homeless into private rooms has saved lives. You point out that the situation has been challenging for the staff and clients, but there is a third stakeholder: the community.

    I believe many of the voices you are hearing are not against protecting the homeless, but are upset that the concerns of the community, especially with regard to safety, have been ignored initially and only addressed when the community takes action. Much of the initial uproar can be traced to as many as nineteen (as of August 2) sex offenders that were moved into the Belleclaire and Belnord hotels, a short walk from nearby schools. I was tracking the NYS Sex Offender Registry at the time, and at least sixteen had been convicted of crimes against minors between the ages of 4 and 17, with seven designated level 3 (high risk of re-offence). Although it took a while and a lot of noise, the community was finally heard and all have been moved away from these schools.

    There remain additional safety issues, and the community, just like the clients and staff of CUCS, has a right to safety. Additional dialogue, transparency and enforcement, not denying and name-calling, would have been useful initially and would still be useful now. With the city’s help, all the stakeholders’ needs should be heard and met, and that includes the host community.

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