Several residents with disabilities say they were sent to buildings that did not meet their needs: Some were transferred to a hotel without a working elevator, and one woman who uses a motorized scooter was moved to a hotel without a working front door or accessible bathroom.

Adi Talwar

The city had rented rooms at the Park West Hotel in Manhattan to house homeless New Yorkers during the pandemic.

A federal judge on Thursday again ordered New York City to stop moving homeless people out of hotel rooms and into group shelters for two weeks, after several residents with disabilities were sent to buildings that did not meet their needs.

Judge Valerie Caproni ruled that the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has not complied with conditions set by a federal judge three weeks ago, including policies put in place to ensure people with disabilities receive safe and appropriate accommodations. Attorneys from the Legal Aid Society and the firm Jenner Block filed a motion to stop all transfers Tuesday as part of ongoing litigation on behalf of homeless shelter residents with disabilities. 

Caproni specifically cited the experiences of people who were granted a so-called “reasonable accommodation” to meet their health and mobility needs, but transferred into another hotel without a working elevator.

“You’re moving people into a building without an elevator,” Caproni told DHS officials during a two-hour long conference Thursday. “That I would say is a big problem.”

DHS Administrator Joslyn Carter responded that she was “horrified and embarrassed that happened.”

“The expectation is that won’t happen again,” Carter added.

Following Caproni’s ruling, DHS Spokesperson Isaac McGinn said the agency “will work to codify our existing plans, protocols and recent adjustments to ensure that when we resume this process this month we are aligned on the path forward, including how we are together protecting client safety and appropriately meeting each individual’s unique needs.”

Since April 2020, the city has rented out rooms in about 60 hotels for roughly 8,000 homeless adults in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. The policy, labeled “de-densification,” has been hailed as a successful intervention for protecting shelter residents and their communities.

Advocates began sounding the alarm as soon as Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the city in mid-June to clear the COVID hotels and send residents back to barracks-style shelters, where more than a dozen people can share a room.

Attorneys representing homeless New Yorkers told the court that a litany of problems persist, despite a judge previously ordering the city to provide seven days notice ahead of the moves and comply with the terms of a class-action lawsuit forcing the city to provide reasonable accommodations.

The Delta variant of the coronavirus puts a mostly unvaccinated population with a disproportionate number of health problems at risk of getting sick and dying, they say.

“Repopulating shelters now constitutes an unwarranted return to an inadequate, overburdened system that directly threatens the health of thousands of New Yorkers and, indirectly, that of the entire city,” wrote a collection of doctors, including former New York City Health Commissioners Dr. Oxiris Barbot and Dr. Mary Bassett, in a letter to de Blasio last month.

The city has so far emptied all but 19 of the original 60 hotels, according to a declaration submitted by DHS to the court Wednesday. The plan first focused on hotels in Midtown Manhattan, which de Blasio said was important for restarting the tourism economy—though some hotel owners have said they welcome the steady income from the city, which has received reimbursement from the federal government to rent the hotel rooms.

Carter said the city had moved 5,032 individuals out of the COVID hotels as of Aug. 3, with 1,475 people granted reasonable accommodations and placed into other hotels rather than congregate shelters. Not all residents moved out of the hotels report to the assigned shelters, however. The city has said it does not track how many people show up and remain in the new group settings.  

About 1,900 people are still staying in the “de-densification “ hotels, now mostly located in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

“There is no reason to halt transfers now, 5 weeks into an 8-week plan, when DHS has completed more than half of the transfers,” Carter wrote in her declaration to the court, before describing policies that city and nonprofit provider staff are supposed to follow to ensure people are moved into places that meet their needs. 

Carter’s filing also said 17 residents tested positive for COVID-19 in the DHS adult shelter system on Aug. 3, though six of them were screened at intake. 

DHS officials said Thursday that they needed to move people out of five specific hotels where their contracts have expired, though they said the owners agreed to grant them an extension.

Caproni, the judge, said she thinks the hotels rented out to limit the spread of coronavirus are no longer necessary and did not dispute the plan to clear the lodgings. “But does it have to happen tomorrow or can it happen in a week or two?” she asked.

With more than 16,200 single adults in the DHS shelter system, she took a grim view of the city’s homelessness crisis.

“We’re going to have a homeless problem until I’m dead and in my grave,” she said.

She also reprimanded DHS officials for not establishing an effective process for identifying people’s needs, locating specific hotel rooms that meet those needs and tracking the moves from Point A to Point B. The agency said in court last week that it has staff who do perform that work, referred to as “vacancy control.”

“If you’re renting rooms at the Radisson, you have to have someone calling the Radisson to say, ‘How many rooms do you have for people who are blind. How many rooms do you have with an accessible bathroom,” Caproni said before citing the experience of a woman who used a motorized scooter but was moved to a hotel without a working front door, and into a room without an appropriate shower or toilet.

“How do you end up with a woman on a scooter without an accessible bathroom?”