In correspondence between city and state agencies in May, before the state lifted COVID-19 restrictions, the Health Department recommended halting hotel shelter transfers if the city saw a major variant outbreak or if average COVID hospitalization admissions exceeded 50 cases a day, which it since has.

A dormitory-style shelter in Brooklyn.

Adi Talwar

Back in May, as New York was on the precipice of reopening after more than a year of COVID-19 restrictions, the city submitted plans to the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) seeking permission to begin transferring around 9,000 homeless adults from hotel rooms back to the group shelters the city had used before the pandemic.

The rooms, rented by the city at the start of the crisis at some 60 hotels across the boroughs, were intended to help curb the spread of the virus by providing shelter residents with access to more private space instead of the often crowded, dormitory-style sites that make up the shelter system.

The effort worked—just 0.4 percent of the city’s total COVID-19 cases have been among New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, officials say—but their use was always intended to be temporary, Mayor Bill de Blasio repeatedly stressed.

In seeking the state’s permission to cease using the hotel sites, the city’s Department of Social Services (DSS) and Department of Homeless Services (DHS) submitted detailed plans to the state on how it would do so in order to minimize COVID risks, including meeting a series of specific criteria laid out by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).

But a month later, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted the state’s COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing guidelines in light of increasing vaccination rates, meaning the city no longer needed state permission to move forward on the hotel phase-outs. Those earlier required plans, a spokesperson for the former governor told City Limits at the time, were “moot.”

In the months since, the city has pushed forward on the controversial hotel transfers, despite legal challenges that temporarily halted the practice this summer. And the moves have been carried out without needing to meet the requirements the city set for itself in those May plans sent to the OTDA, since it was no longer required by the state to do so.

But those earlier draft plans, obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request by advocates from the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project and shared with City Limits, offer a look at the city Health Department’s initial recommendations for the moves, at odds with how the actual transfers have been carried out since.

The letter city agencies sent to OTDA on May 18 includes a list of Health Department “shelter reopening metrics,” and recommends that shelter populations should “remain in hotels until the criteria laid out in this document are met.” The criteria included, among other things, that the 7-day average hospital admission threshold for COVID-like illnesses remain below 50 cases per day, and that the city sees “no unforeseen changes in the COVID-19 disease landscape” such as “a major increase in COVID-19 variants of concern.”

The Health Department also recommended that the hotel-to-shelter relocations should be “discontinued (if not yet complete) or there should be a return to the use of hotels” if those factors are no longer met. The city’s average COVID-19 hospitalization admissions began to surpass that 50-case threshold beginning in July; it was 54 on Thursday, city data shows. Meanwhile, the highly contagious Delta variant now accounts for 98 percent of positive city COVID tests over the last four weeks, what advocates argue constitutes a major change in the city’s “COVID-19 landscape” that the DOHMH warned about in its draft recommendations.

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While the city is no longer legally obligated to comply with those earlier draft plans since the state lifted its COVID restrictions in June and OTDA subsequently updated its guidance for congregate shelter providers, advocates and New Yorkers experiencing homelessness say it underscores their argument that moving people back to group shelters isn’t safe.

“My biggest fear was the situation where I would be exposed to this COVID virus,” said Michael Garrett, who says he entered the city’s shelter system in 2019 after he had a heart attack and was terminated from his job. He’s spent the last year and a half in one of the city-rented hotel rooms, with the exception of a few days in August when the city transferred him into a shelter space shared with 15 other people; he was returned to a hotel room after the New York Times wrote an article about his plight.

“There was no way I could see myself staying in this environment,” Garrett said of the group shelter. He has asthma, he added, and is undergoing cancer treatment. While he’s vaccinated, he says he’s “still trying to be careful,” and worries how he would fare if he did catch COVID.

“I definitely don’t need that on top of all the other medical conditions I’m dealing with,” he said.

Milton Perez, a leader with the homeless union at advocacy group VOCAL-NY, says he was recently transferred from a hotel room he’d primarily shared with one other roommate throughout the pandemic into a dorm-style shelter with 25 other people, where beds are separated by just a few feet.

“It’s real claustrophobic,” he said. “You don’t know whose been vaccinated or not.”

COVID cases have been on the rise in recent weeks across the shelter system: There were 84 active cases at the end of last month, down from a high point of 93 in mid-August but up from just nine cases during the first week of July, according to city data.

In a statement, a DSS-DHS spokesperson pointed to the the city’s “multi-pronged approach” to protect its clients from COVID, including administering more than 85,000 COVID tests throughout the pandemic and a vaccination campaign that’s resulted in more than 8,200 shelter residents (out of approximately 20,000 adults in the system) who are now fully inoculated.

“Across the board, we’ve implemented comprehensive safety protocols, including proactive COVID testing, vaccination, isolation/quarantine, and more, while closely monitoring all our shelters — and we are connecting any client who needs it to health care or services whenever we learn of positive cases,” the spokesperson said.

“As we emerge from this unprecedented crisis, we are confident that our multi-pronged approach to the pandemic has provided New Yorkers experiencing homelessness with the same protections as those fortunate enough to social distance at home during this period, and together with our invaluable provider partners, we will continue to prioritize the health and safety of our clients in all we do.”

A spokesperson for the Health Department did not respond to specific questions about its earlier guidance, but stressed the city’s vaccination efforts, including passing a mandate in July that required all public employees and contractors working congregate settings to get the shot.

“Vaccination continues to offer us a path out of this pandemic and our DSS-DHS colleagues are undertaking every measure to ensure that staff and residents are vaccinated and safe,”

The city also points to changes it has made in response to a lawsuit challenging the hotel clearance plan, when a judge ordered the city to provide seven-day notice before transferring shelter residents and to inform them of their right to request accommodations that meet their health needs. Officials say the de Blasio administration has also made major strides in expanding housing options and anti-eviction protections to lower the number of New Yorkers in the shelter system, saying 7,500 formerly homeless households have moved into permanent housing during 2020 alone.

But shelter residents and advocates say that’s exactly what the city should be trying to do for all New Yorkers experiencing homelessness: Moving them from hotel rooms into homes instead of back into group shelters. They point to a recent increase in the value of rent subsidies for homeless New Yorkers, known as CityFHEPS vouchers, making it easier for voucher-holders to find permanent apartments, as well as around 8,000 emergency rental subsidies the city recently received from the federal government.

“People need more than shelter,” Garrett said. “They need a place to live permanently.”