Several people staying in hotels during the pandemic said the city’s plan to send them back to group shelters motivated them to get the shot.

Scott Heins for the Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

A healthcare worker received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in New York on Dec. 14.

The man reclining on the steps near a Jersey-bound bus gate at the Port Authority wore a t-shirt that would warm the heart of any public health official.

“I’m an NYC vax champ,” it read, above an image of the Statue of Liberty flexing her bicep. The city’s Test and Trace Corps distributes the shirts at street outreach events, and a COVID-19 vaccine for one of the city’s most vulnerable residents, a man who beds down in public places like the busy bus depot, would be a major success.

But Robert B, who asked not to use his last name because his family doesn’t know he’s homeless, said he didn’t get the shot. He rarely interacts with others, and, anyway, he keeps up with his health needs, he said.

“I don’t need it,” he said Friday afternoon. “I get tested. I do my own thing.”

Outside the Four Points Sheraton hotel across the street from Port Authority, Rhymel Leonard sat on a ledge next to the sidewalk, waiting for a bus to take him to a congregate shelter in the Bronx. There he’ll share a dormitory with more than a dozen other men, but he said he has no plans to get the vaccine. Not now, not ever, and not even in exchange for pay, as some have proposed.

“I have my own perspective and nothing can change my mind,” he said.

Across all sectors of society, healthcare workers have encountered vaccine resistance that can complicate recovery efforts and threaten another wave of COVID-19, this time fueled by the fast-spreading Delta variant. But when it comes to homeless New Yorkers, there’s a specific urgency to reach the vaccine hesitant, the vaccine misinformed or, simply, the disconnected. 

The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) is making good on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to clear homeless single adults out of more than 60 hotels rented during the pandemic to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. By the end of July, de Blasio aims to return roughly 8,000 people to barracks-style congregate shelters, where state rules allow operators to place beds three feet apart. 

Since April 2020, the emergency hotels have allowed homeless single adults to live in relative privacy while helping to drive down the rate of COVID-19 among New Yorkers in the DHS shelter system. At times, homeless hotel residents tested positive for COVID-19 less often than the citywide average. The rooms, however, were always intended to be a temporary measure, unnecessary now that the pandemic is waning, de Blasio says.

“Shelter settings are where we can provide people the most support on their way to a better life, and we just have to accept that if we’re moving forward in every other way and putting COVID behind us, and we can do this safely and provide people support, it’s time to do it,” he said during a press briefing June 29.

It’s hard to deny the raw numbers: Nearly 68 percent of New York City adults have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to city data. The rate of illness has remained below 1 percent for more than a month, based on the rolling seven-day test positivity average.

Yet homeless New Yorkers and their advocates say those broader statistics mask a relatively low rate of vaccination among the city’s homeless—a number that is tough to gauge because of the shifting population and opaque or inconsistent record-keeping. As of July 2, DHS had administered nearly 20,000 vaccine doses to shelter staff and residents, with 6,851 clients fully vaccinated through the city initiative, the agency said. That represents about 21.5 percent of the 31,326 adults who stayed in a DHS shelter, including family sites, on July 1.

There were about 46,000 shelter residents overall that day, according to the city’s most recent daily census report, including 14,563 children (many of whom are ineligible to receive the vaccine because of their age).

The math to determine the actual vaccination rate is not that simple, however. And maybe it’s not possible.

DHS says they focused their vaccination efforts on single adults living in hotels and congregate shelters, as well as formerly street homeless New Yorkers residing in special units called Safe Haven or stabilization beds. There were about 16,500 single adults in shelters on July 1, a decrease from 18,501 on an average night in January, according to city records.

An untold number of shelter residents have received the vaccine outside the DHS system—through work, for example, or through Health + Hospitals mobile vaccine vans and programs run by nonprofits serving the city’s homeless—and therefore go uncounted in the DHS figures. Others, like individuals moving into permanent apartments, are tallied in the DHS vaccination count, but no longer live in shelters or hotels.

City officials and nonprofit agencies have worked for months to make the shots easy to access and to provide incentives, like $30 gift cards and Metrocards, for homeless New Yorkers who are unsure about vaccination. Their intensive efforts run up against a common obstacle, says Dr. Van Yu, chief medical officer at Center for Urban Community Services (CUCS), which operates two congregate shelters and a Safe Haven for people moving off the streets.

“It’s people’s ambivalence. Lots of people all over the place in this country are having all different kinds of ambivalence, or even worse,” Yu said. “I don’t think people in shelters are having different concerns than any other people.”

He said there are some outliers, like people with mental illness marked by paranoia, for whom a vaccine drive may fit into their deepest fears. “But beyond that, it’s the same stuff: I don’t trust the government; I don’t trust this vaccine, it was developed too quickly, I don’t believe COVID is a big deal,” he said.

Yu said just under half of the 191 residents at his organization’s two adult shelters had received their vaccines as of June 28. The residents are staying at two hotels and will return to congregate shelters later this month. At the CUCS Safe Haven, 43 percent of people are vaccinated, he said.

CUCS medical staff administer vaccines through a program separate from the doses delivered by healthcare workers contracted through DHS, but Yu said the majority of his agency’s shelter residents received their vaccines through the DHS initiative.

“They come to the shelter, for staff and clients, and it has been really successful, and a great thing that DHS does,” he said.

City Limits reached out to 15 other nonprofit organizations that operate shelters for homeless single adults in New York City. Five did not respond. Ten of the organizations said they did not keep vaccination data or deferred to DHS, with some explaining that city contracts prevent them from sharing that type of information with the media.

Still, officials from four of the providers agreed to speak on condition of anonymity and said their shelter vaccination rates were below 30 percent.

In their own words

Over the past month, City Limits has talked to dozens of homeless New Yorkers, shelter staffers and nonprofit administrators about vaccine attitudes in order to learn why people have decided to get their shots or to forgo the protective medication, at least for now. The conversations illustrate the diversity of perspectives when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, with many homeless New Yorkers eager, or at least willing, to get their dose and move on with their lives.

“I want to return to work and I know you’re going to need that [vaccination] card,” said Ernest Poree, a stage and lighting designer who became homeless after losing his livelihood when theaters shut down. “The vaccine means employment and peace of mind.”

Poree said many of his friends and relatives died during the pandemic—a constant reminder of the lethal dangers of the illness. “The amount of people I lost is unacceptable,” he said.

Several people staying in hotels during the pandemic said the city’s plan to send them back to group shelters motivated them to get the shot.

“I’m scared of going back to shelter and I don’t want to catch it at all,” said Anthony Molloy, one of the Four Points residents being sent back to a Bronx shelter Friday. “I don’t want them to say, ‘He’s homeless. He died in the cold. He was just another statistic.’”

Nearby, Eric Bouldin, another hotel resident awaiting the move to the Bronx, said getting the vaccine was an easy decision. “I don’t want to catch COVID,” Bouldin said.

Shams DaBaron, a former shelter resident who began advocating for his peers during a legal fight over housing men in the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side, said homeless New Yorkers, like people across the country, are still weighing their fears and seeking reliable information from trusted messengers.

DaBaron, who goes by the nickname Da Homeless Hero, said two things convinced him to get the shot: He nearly died of COVID-19 in April 2020, and he learned about the benefits of the Moderna vaccine from a top medical official at Project Renewal, the organization that provided services at the Lucerne.

“Dr. Jon Giftos, the head medical guy at Project Renewal, he also took the vaccine and he gave a really good explanation that made me more comfortable and explained the feeling and the process for how the vaccine, Moderna, actually worked, and I said I’d take it,” DaBaron said.

He said he encourages others to get vaccinated but understands their reluctance, especially when it comes to Black and brown New Yorkers underserved by the healthcare system for generations.

“The same people who are disenfranchised, victims of health inequities, those are the people who are not taking the vaccine,” he said. “There’s so much anxiety of going back to shelters and then can you imagine telling that person you need a vaccine.”

He also referenced a pervasive myth throughout the shelter system: that a vaccine dose is a one-way ticket back to congregate shelter. “Some people think, ‘Once you get this vaccine, we’re getting your butt out of here [a hotel] and you can’t say no,’” he said.

Milton Perez, an activist and resident of a Brownsville hotel, cited the same rumor. He said the idea, repeated even by shelter staffers, has stopped many homeless New Yorkers from receiving the vaccination.

“I’ve been lax about it, but now I’m willing to take it, but that was the fear,” Perez says of the rumor. “Now they’re talking about the Delta [variant] and the dorm I’m going back to is a 20-person dorm and it’s the size and shape of a subway car. Are we supposed to sleep with masks on?”

A vigorous vaccine drive

Throughout the pandemic, DHS and nonprofit workers have offered routine COVID-19 testing at shelters and hotels, administering nearly 75,000 tests as of June 28. The agency says it drew on that large-scale testing framework and experience to distribute vaccines as well. The effort began in January with a dedicated vaccination site specifically for eligible homeless New Yorkers.

Nonprofit officials say DHS quickly pressed city and state health departments to give medical providers that serve homeless New Yorkers immediate access to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The single-dose vaccine can be stored at a higher temperature, making it easier to administer to people in need.

The agency’s batch of Johnson & Johnson doses also enabled them to provide mobile vaccinations, an effort supplemented by similar roving vaccine clinics for street homeless New Yorkers run by the city’s Health + Hospitals Corporation.

“The health and safety of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness who we serve is our top priority–and every step of the way throughout this crisis, we’ve put the protection of our clients front and center,” said DHS spokesperson Isaac McGinn in a statement. “As soon as our clients became eligible for the vaccine, we sought to make it as easy as possible for them to get vaccinated.”

DHS says it has addressed vaccine hesitancy by distributing educational materials at shelters and hotels and educating staff members about the shots. The agency has also teamed up with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to host information forums and town halls.

“Through all of our strategic efforts to ensure vaccine access, which built on the existing infrastructure of our agency’s successful COVID-19 testing apparatus, we have made important progress vaccinating vulnerable New Yorkers experiencing homelessness,” McGinn added. 

shots lined up

Mayoral Photography Office

Fear of another wave

Despite those efforts, many advocates and homeless New Yorkers say they are terrified of a resurgence of COVID-19, with an impact even more concentrated among the city’s most vulnerable, who are disproportionately unvaccinated.

“They’re trying to send me to a shelter that’s a dormitory and you’ve got 15 people in a dorm and you don’t know who’s sick,” said Anthony Campbell, a resident of the Four Points Sheraton, who led a protest against the decision to move residents into a congregate shelter. “We need to help each other. We need to fight together.”

Immediately after de Blasio announced that the city would move ahead with the hotel clearance plan, advocates pointed out the persistent threat of the virus.

“The pandemic is not over. There are people sleeping in shelters who are still testing positive and getting sick,” said Giselle Routhier, then-policy director at Coalition for the Homeless.

“Until permanent affordable housing can be secured, the safest option remains placement in hotel rooms. With the dangerous Delta variant on the rise and vaccination rates still not high enough, now is no time to let our guard down.” 

De Blasio, however, has made clear that he and his administration will continue to pursue the clearance policy. Last week, DHS scheduled a return to shelter for residents staying at eight hotels in Manhattan. Earlier in June, the city moved people out of hotels in Queens and the Upper West Side.

And it may be too late for the city to reverse course without incurring huge debts. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has reimbursed the city for the emergency hotel rooms since April 2020. During a May budget hearing, Department of Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks told councilmembers that the city would continue to house homeless New Yorkers in the hotels until FEMA ceased the payments. 

On Friday, FEMA spokesperson Don Caetano told City Limits that the agency has decided to stop reimbursing New York City for hotel rooms after Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted a statewide emergency order on June 24 and Mayor Bill de Blasio said New York City would “fully reopen” July 1. 

Caetano said FEMA has informed the city’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) “that it must provide adequate justification to support the continued need for non-congregate sheltering considering the fact that NYC is reopening without restriction on July 1.”

“As such, NYC OMB has been working with the NYC Department of Homeless Services to move the homeless population out of hotels and into congregate shelters,” Caetano added. 

Caetano was circumspect when asked if FEMA would have continued funding the hotel rooms without de Blasio’s announcement or Cuomo’s decision to lift the emergency order.

“The short answer is that FEMA reimbursement for non-congregate sheltering is contingent on such sheltering being a demonstrated need due to an ongoing threat to public health and safety,” he said. “As the public health threat from COVID-19 declines, FEMA routinely evaluates the demonstrated need for non-congregate sheltering in NYC, which does account in part on local and state public health actions and activities.”

Multiple organizations and individuals are now considering legal challenges to the hotel clearance policy, but for now, the moves will proceed apace. 

In the process, vaccine outreach will remain crucial for keeping people safe. The experience of some homeless New Yorkers demonstrates the importance of consistent connections and reminders.

Juan Olivares, ejected from the Sheraton Four Points on Friday, said he missed his vaccine appointment a week earlier, but no one followed up to schedule a new one. 

Olivares, who speaks only Spanish, sat on the sidewalk outside the hotel, his possessions in two garbage bags beside him. “They still haven’t told me where I’m going,” he said.

About a week after she was transferred from a Central Park West hotel to a 20-woman dormitory shelter on Jerome Avenue, Judith Rivera still hadn’t received her shot. She said she wants to see what happens to others who got their vaccines before she rolls up her sleeve.

“Everyone is rushing us to hurry up and take it,” said Rivera, who spent the past year living in a hotel room. But as she spoke Friday afternoon, she seemed to warm up to the idea of getting the vaccine.

“They take good care of us here,” Rivera said of the site’s provider, Care For the Homeless. “I actually was just in there to pick up my medication. They didn’t ask me if I wanted the vaccine. But if they had asked, I’d do it.”

A Care For the Homeless spokesperson said shelter residents “have had and continue to have multiple ways to receive the vaccine.”

On Tuesday morning, Rivera said she is still planning to get her shot, especially since more women are moving back into the shelter from another hotel this week.

“I’m going to do it because I’m scared with more people coming in,” she said. “I just need to get it over with.”

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