New York City is moving homeless adults from hotel rooms—rented in the early days of the pandemic to limit the spread of the coronavirus—back into congregate shelters, where residents sleep in barracks-style dorms.

Adi Talwar

The city had rented rooms at the Park West Hotel in Manhattan to house homeless New Yorkers during the pandemic.As of late July 2021, Department of Homeless Services is no longer using it to house victims of domestic violence

For months, Patti Mullings has braced for a return to a homeless shelter on Jerome Avenue, where the No. 4 train roars overhead and up to 20 women share a dormitory.

The city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and Care For the Homeless, the nonprofit organization that runs the shelter, first notified Mullings and dozens of other residents in April that they could be moved out of their semi-private rooms in an Upper West Side hotel at any time. That hasn’t made the transition easier.

“It’s like going from heaven to hell,” Mullings said Thursday, about two hours after a bus dropped her and the other women off at the shelter they left more than a year ago. “The change is that drastic.”

At the Park West Hotel on the Upper West Side, she shared a bathroom with one roommate. Starting Thursday, she resumed sleeping on a cot and sharing toilets and showers with about 200 other women. Outside food and drinks are prohibited at the shelter, and the possessions she brought back had to fit inside two garbage bags. Clear plastic bags filled with clothing, handbags and other possessions were visible in the shelter lobby the day of the move.

“I don’t know how I will be able to do this again,” Mullings said, pausing as the train clattered by. She had hoped to secure a permanent apartment, she said. Instead she’s returning to the very same place she was at before the pandemic.

Mullings is one of hundreds of homeless adults who the city has so far moved out of commercial hotel rooms and back into congregate shelters, where residents sleep in barracks-style dorms. The city rented the rooms in more than 60 hotels in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to limit the spread of the coronavirus and to protect some of the city’s most vulnerable New Yorkers. The initiative earned praise from the homeless, their advocates and progressive policymakers, even as it alienated Not-In-My-Backyard New Yorkers, like the group of Upper West Siders who sued to evict 280 homeless men from the Lucerne Hotel. The few dozen men left at the Lucerne were set to be kicked out Monday. Some have moved into permanent homes, while others will return to shelters.

Homeless New Yorkers say they are disappointed by the moves, and frustrated by failing to find permanent housing despite plunging rents on previously market-rate units.

“As many new buildings as they have coming up, they have to get us out,” said Judith Rivera, another resident of the Jerome Avenue shelter, as she gestured toward a high-rise under construction about a block away. “Why not build buildings where 50 percent of apartments are for people in shelters and 50 percent for other people so the landlords can make their money?”

She said she looked at apartments but was frequently turned away or ignored by landlords and brokers when they learned she had a CityFHEPS voucher—a rent subsidy provided by the city. The pandemic made the search harder and complicated existing bureaucratic hurdles, like filing paperwork and seeking approval from city agencies, she added.

Care For the Homeless, which runs the shelter, directed questions to DHS. The agency hailed the efforts of front-line workers who have served homeless New Yorkers throughout the pandemic.

Rivera, who became homeless when her son was convicted of selling drugs and the family was evicted from a NYCHA apartment, said she wonders what it would take to find affordable housing if a once-in-a-century pandemic wasn’t enough to force changes.

“We always knew we were coming back here if you don’t get your paperwork together,” she said. “I thought we might get out of hotels and into apartments, but is that going to happen or is it going to be another two years here?”

Obstacles to housing

Mayor Bill de Blasio had discussed the goal of moving people out of hotels and back into shelters for weeks as the rate of COVID-19 subsided citywide. About 9,000 New Yorkers were being housed in hotels during the pandemic to prevent the virus’ spread.

De Blasio made it official on June 16 when he said he aimed to finish the transfers by the end of July. The city just needed state approval to begin the moves and allow the hotels to reopen to tourists, he said.

The state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance countered that they did not have to sign off on the city’s plan because Gov. Andrew Cuomo had already lifted social distancing rules. With that, the city began moving people back into congregate shelters at least as early as June 17, though watchdog groups say some people had been removed from hotels even before de Blasio’s announcement.  

Opponents of the moves say the city is acting too hastily, especially with just a fraction of shelter residents vaccinated against COVID-19. Officials from four shelter providers, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to alienate the city, told City Limits that only, at most, 30 percent of their clients have been vaccinated. A fifth, Center for Urban Community Services, said its vaccine rate was close to 50 percent.

An administrator from another organization who spoke with City Limits said the vaccination rate was 25 percent just over six weeks ago. DHS officials say the city does not track the total number of shelter residents who are vaccinated, but does know that more than 6,000 people have received their doses through an agency initiative. Homeless New Yorkers interviewed for this story said the agency has made the shots easily accessible, though many people have resisted the vaccine.

On a structural level, critics say the city is wasting an opportunity to move people from hotels into apartments  instead of essentially replicating the very same situation that existed prior to the pandemic: thousands of New Yorkers packed into shelters without a clear pathway to housing. 

“This is an opportunity for the city to really move as many folks into affordable housing as possible,” said Erin Kelly, director of health policy at the organization RxHome and a former advisor at the Department of Social Services (DSS), which includes DHS. 

Kelly acknowledged the bureaucratic obstacles to finding apartments, especially amid the uncertainty of the first several months of pandemic, but said the housing is there—different city agencies, like DHS, Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and NYCHA, just need to collaborate more effectively.

“It takes a lot of collaboration between the different agencies in the city, working closely with HPD to have better realtionships with landlords, looking at who those 9,000 to 10,000 folks are and identifying the kind of housing they need,” she said. 

The city’s Housing Connect portal is supposed to help with that, but finding an apartment through the website can be like winning the lottery. New affordable buildings receive tens of thousands of applications for a handful of units. For example, more than 26,000 people applied for 84 apartments at a senior residence in the Bronx, the nonprofit provider Volunteers of America-Greater New York told the Bronx Times.

The city can unlock thousands of additional units through a few key policy changes, Kelly said. First, they could allocate nearly 8,000 emergency Section 8 vouchers provided by the federal government through the most recent COVID-19 stimulus package. Next, the city could immediately increase the value of CityFHEPS vouchers under legislation recently passed by the City Council. She and other advocates have also called on HPD to work with more landlords in order to link homeless New Yorkers with available units. 

Helping someone move is not simple: There are paperwork requirements, inspections, uncooperative landlords and tenant responsibilities, but the past few months have presented an opportunity to accomplish a transformational change, she said.

“Matching up people in need of housing to the housing that is available is not going to be perfect but there is a lot of overlap,” she said. “That’s what gets lost to me. You have the demand, you have the supply, you just don’t have any good way to connect them.”

Housing successes 

Though homelessness remains a crisis in New York City—one that could get worse once an eviction freeze comes to an end later this summer—DHS has achieved some successes during the pandemic. The city protected many homeless New Yorkers from contracting COVID-19 through the hotel initiative while significantly reducing the number of families living in shelters. 

The agency pushes back against the notion that they should continue housing people in hotels. Those rooms were an extraordinary stopgap solution to an extraordinary public health crisis, but they are no longer needed now that COVID-19 rates have dropped, a DHS spokesperson said.

“Over the past year-plus, our invaluable frontline staff, provider partners, and outreach teams have gone above and beyond amid unprecedented circumstances to protect and support the New Yorkers experiencing homelessness who we serve,” the spokesperson said. “This includes adapting quickly at the height of the pandemic and temporarily relocating thousands of individuals from shelters to commercial hotels to provide them with the same protections from the virus as individuals who were fortunate enough to be able to socially distance at home during this crisis.”

The hotels are also expensive compared to the cost of shelters and permanent housing. FEMA has reimbursed the city for the accommodations, but not wraparound services, the agency says. The rooms  cost $120 per day per household without services. Combined, hotel rooms and services cost an average of $237 a night in 2019, DHS told City Limits last year.

Moving people out of the rooms also tracks with de Blasio’s mission of ending a reliance on hotels as emergency housing. He included ending the city’s hotel dependence in his 2017 policy plan for building more shelters and reducing homelessness.

Despite tremendous obstacles, 18,953 New Yorkers, including 7,671 families, moved out of shelters in 2020, according to DHS statistics. Nearly 5,000 of those families used CityFHEPS  vouchers and the number of families staying in DHS shelters has dropped significantly as a result of staff efforts combined with the statewide eviction protections. Overall, the number of people in family shelters has dropped by more than a third since 2014—from more than 43,000 to less than 26,428 as of Thursday, according to the most recent census published by the city. The number of homeless families in DHS shelters decreased every month of the 2021 fiscal year, which began in July 2020 and ends June 30.

The shelter population of single adults has remained stubbornly high, however. Though the number dropped from an average of just over 18,500 in January to 17,297 Thursday, it’s still roughly the same as it was in June 2020 and in March 2020, when the pandemic began.

“It has been an undeniably challenging time—physically, emotionally, psychologically, and more—for our city and for all New Yorkers, regardless of housing status,” the DHS spokesperson said. 

He noted the work of frontline staff who reported for work and served homeless New Yorkers throughout the pandemic “making this the best and safest experience it can be for these individuals as they get back on their feet.”

Back in the Bronx

The statistics and progress matter little to Mullings, who is back in a shelter indefinitely, four years after she lost her apartment. 

Mullings became homeless in 2017, when a fire ripped through her building on Walton Avenue. Since then, she has moved in and out of shelter, spending some time on the street even as she continued to work, she said. The room in the Park West Hotel allowed her to stabilize her physical and mental health and gave her hope that permanent housing was on the horizon, she said. 

“It’s like a horse with blinders on,” she said. “You could focus on yourself and trying to get out of the shelter.”

Mullings lost her job as a restaurant bathroom attendant when indoor dining shut down last March and she said she had hoped to find an apartment using the unemployment checks she received during the pandemic. She wasn’t able to find a place she could afford, she said. 

She was heading to a local park to clear her head when she talked with City Limits Thursday. She said she needed to readjust to sleeping in a dorm and folding her clothing into a locker because her assigned room lacked closets or rods to hang items.

“Let me paint you a comparison,” she said, pausing as the train passed above. “In here, you have at least 20 women in a room, they switch the lights out at 10 p.m. and at 6 a.m. they turn them back on. Everyone is on a different time schedule. Some people may be running their mouths before 6. Someone might be on the phone. Someone else might be playing music. Two people may be fighting.”

“There’s just so much commotion.”.

Staving off a move

Miles away, at a hotel in South Ozone Park, just outside JFK Airport, Ernest P. considered his next move. 

On the night of June 17, a day after de Blasio announced the pending hotel transfers, staff from the nonprofit service provider Acacia Network informed Ernest and the rest of his floor that they would have to leave in a few hours. Acacia staff just didn’t yet know where the men would end up.

After Ernest contacted advocates from the groups Neighbors Together and the Safety Net Project, a branch of the Urban Justice Center, organizers arrived to halt the move because residents did not receive the 48-hour written notice required by law. Safety Net advocates have made similar visits to shelters elsewhere in the city ahead of abrupt transfers to unknown locations and have distributed Know Your Rights materials to shelter residents. 

Under state law, shelter providers must give written notification of a transfer, including the specific location of the new site. City rules also allow residents to make a “reasonable accommodation” request explaining why they should not be moved back into a congregate setting. The moves are not supposed to take place until the shelter director makes a decision on the reasonable accommodation. 

Ernest said he worries about COVID-19 spreading inside the congregate shelters. He received a shot of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, but said many other hotel residents, including neighbors with significant health problems, have not. 

“We’re not out of this thing,” he said. 

He worked as a stage and lighting designer and said he became homeless after the pandemic upended his livelihood. He was living with a friend in East Harlem, but had to leave when a family member moved into the apartment. DHS assigned him the hotel last May, he said.

He thought the emergency stay would be temporary. Instead, it has dragged on for more than a year. He hasn’t found a landlord who is willing to both accept the housing subsidy he received from the city and to hold the apartment for a few months while agencies process paperwork.

Just two housing specialists at the hotel handle applications for hundreds of people, and landlords and brokers have rarely accepted materials in-person during the pandemic, Ernest said. 

There is a lot of urgency to move people out of hotels and back into shelters, but not the same level of urgency to finding permanent housing, he said. 

“They’re not particularly trying to move people out,” Ernest said. “There’s a great exodus of people being moved, but I’ve never seen an exodus of people leaving here because they’re finding places.”

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