The number of COVID-positive New Yorkers staying in city shelters or connected with outreach workers more than doubled during the first two weeks of December. Advocates have urged the mayor to resume an initiative that allowed thousands of homeless New Yorkers to stay in one- or two-person hotel rooms during the early days of the pandemic.

 A dorm-style bedroom inside a women’s shelter in Brooklyn.

Adi Talwar

New COVID cases are once again surging inside New York City’s homeless shelters and Natosha Sanders is scared. 

Sanders, 47, lives in a congregate shelter in Midtown and said at least five of the building’s 68 residents tested positive for COVID-19 Monday and Tuesday, as the city grapples with a major spike in cases fueled by the fast-moving omicron variant. One woman received her result by email in the middle of the night, a few days after taking the test. That means she was staying in her 10-person dorm while contagious.

“I’m afraid. And now I’m stuck,” Sanders said. “I have a grandmother who just had surgery and I have a young grandson.”

The number of COVID-positive New Yorkers staying in Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters or connected with outreach workers more than doubled between Dec. 1 and Dec. 15—from 70 to 142—according to weekly reports released by the agency. That figure marks a fraction of the 46,000-person shelter population, which also includes about 14,660 children, many of whom are too young for the vaccine.

But since Dec. 15, new cases seem to be increasing exponentially, reflecting a citywide spike in new cases, according to advocates, shelter staff and administrators. The rise in cases is also evident in other congregate facilities, like city jails. DHS says it will not release an updated total until Friday.

Homeless New Yorkers are disproportionately unvaccinated compared to the general population, and at the same time experience a higher rate of serious medical conditions, according to health experts.

At an Oct. 13 meeting with medical providers and advocates, a top DHS official said the agency estimates that only about 40 percent of clients are vaccinated, according to two people who were present. The rates vary by shelter, and several homeless New Yorkers have described their vaccine hesitancy as well as their eagerness to get the shots and boosters in interviews with City Limits over the past six months. 

The city has not released the specific percentage of vaccinated people staying in DHS shelters, but the agency says that about 11,000 people have received their jabs through on-site vaccine clinics over the past year. Many residents have been vaccinated through other sources, like pharmacies and state-run sites.

Still, even vaccinated New Yorkers are at risk inside shelters, said Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Jacquelyn Simone. 

“We need to recognize that homeless New Yorkers who are in shelters don’t have the same privilege to social distance and protect themselves as much as people who have permanent housing,” Simone said. “Right now, they are responding to outbreaks as opposed to preventing them.”

Simone and other advocates have urged Mayor Bill de Blasio and DHS to resume the hotel initiative that allowed thousands of homeless New Yorkers to stay in one- or two-person rooms during the early days of the pandemic. 

De Blasio moved to end the program back in June, and the last so-called “de-densification” hotel closed in October. The city still maintains a handful of hotels for shelter residents with disabilities or health problems who require reasonable accommodations to meet their medical needs.

“The city’s rash decision to evict people from hotels this past summer has now put thousands of New Yorkers’ lives and health at risk,” said Helen Strom, an organizer and advocate with the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center.

READ MORE: City’s Effort to Move Homeless Back to Group Shelters Contradicts Earlier Health Dept. Guidance, Documents Show

During a press briefing Wednesday, de Blasio said he did not plan to repeat last year’s hotel moves for homeless New Yorkers.

“We’re always looking at the situation we’re facing and listening to what the health care leaders are telling us, but I want to emphasize, it’s a different scenario than we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “So that does not suggest doing things like we did last year. We also have a hell of a lot more people vaccinated.”

A spokesperson for Mayor-elect Eric Adams, de Blasio’s successor who will take office at the start of the new year, declined Wednesday to reveal the next mayor’s plans for protecting homeless New Yorkers from COVID-19.

“The Mayor-elect will have a comprehensive plan when he takes office, but until then there is only one mayor at a time and that is Mayor de Blasio,” said Adams’ spokesperson Evan Thies. 

A DHS spokesperson said Friday that the agency is not considering a large-scale hotel initiative at this time, but will continue monitoring cases and consulting with health experts. And DHS Commissioner Steve Banks said the agency is taking steps to expand isolation hotel capacity and monitor the rising number of cases.

“We have hundreds of quarantine beds and isolation units available, added more over the weekend, and are prepared to open more as needed–and we’re continuing to deliver free COVID-19 tests and vaccines directly to clients at shelters,” Banks said in a statement.

DHS has leased a 135-bed “isolation hotel,” with services provided by HousingWorks, for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 while living in barracks-style shelters. Over the weekend, the agency added 70 isolation beds in another hotel after the first hotel filled up.

There are at least two “quarantine hotels” with 400 beds for shelter residents who may have been exposed to COVID. A DHS spokesperson said about 275 people are staying in those hotels as of Tuesday. 

But HousingWorks CEO Charles King said those sites aren’t enough. The agency will need even more facilities to accommodate the rising number of residents who have tested positive for COVID or who have been exposed to the deadly illness but don’t yet know it, he said.

“When you have a pandemic going on, putting single men in congregate shelters is an open invitation to spread COVID,” King added. “They’re going to absolutely need to expand their quarantine capacity.”

King said DHS officials told him Dec. 17 that the city would soon open a second isolation hotel and sought to contract with HousingWorks to provide behavioral health and medical services. The hotel was previously used to house homeless families, an arrangement that DHS worked to end earlier this year, he said. 

But on Wednesday, King said HousingWorks pulled out of the agreement for the new isolation hotel because DHS plans to double up residents in the hotel rooms. King said that arrangement risks further exposure to COVID-19.

“We don’t think that’s safe,” he said.

Over the past 20 months, 128 DHS clients—shelter residents and street homeless New Yorkers—have died of COVID-19, according to agency statistics. None of those deaths occured between Nov. 24 and Dec. 15, the last four weeks of DHS reports show. 

Testing delays are further complicating the COVID response, shelter staff and administrators told City Limits—reflecting a broader problem across New York City, as residents in recent days have lined up to wait for hours at test sites across the boroughs. Testing is widely available inside shelters thanks to a concerted effort by DHS and the Health Department, but the tests are the PCR variety, which typically take three or more days to return a result.

One Manhattan shelter director, who is not authorized to speak to the media, said their agency needs at-home tests to get a rapid result and protect residents. For now, the organization is relying on residents to self-report COVID symptoms and positive results, the director said.

“We can’t force them to get tested or vaccinated, or force them to wear masks,” the director said. “We take chances daily.” 

An administrator at another shelter provider said at least 10 of their agency’s 200 residents tested positive for COVID-19 last week, while another 30 were likely exposed and moved to quarantine sites. “And we’re just in the beginning of this,” the administrator said. 

Dr. Betty Kolod, a physician who specializes in treating homeless and low-income New Yorkers, said she began encountering a number of COVID-positive patients, colleagues and contacts late last week.

“Suddenly patients and coworkers were all finding that they knew several people who had tested positive for COVID and it really came to a head on Friday,” Kolod said. “In my last session with my patients, a coworker and patient both tested positive.”

She said she has spent time counseling patients about getting the vaccines, including one shelter resident who did not know much about the health benefits—or about the $100 reward the city gives to people who get their dose.

“He talked about his roommate and how they were in close proximity and breathing the same air,” Kolod said. “At the end of the discussion, he said he was interested in getting the vaccine, but he was looking for a place to get vaccinated and to get the $100 certificate.”

Individual providers are taking additional measures to protect residents wherever they can. Sanders, the Manhattan shelter resident, said Win staff moved her from a 10-person dorm into a two-person room because of her asthma. Nevertheless, she said she still shares bathrooms with people who rarely wear masks. She said she is vaccinated but fears a breakthrough infection, or spreading the virus to her family members during the holiday. She said she is trying to get tested every few days, and received negative results Friday and Monday. 

Win’s CEO Christine Quinn, a former City Council speaker, said single adult shelters are not set up to safely deal with a virus outbreak. The shelter where Sanders stays has two single rooms, seven two-person rooms, five three-person rooms and four dorms of up to 10 people. Each floor has two shared bathrooms.

“This is a COVID breeding ground,” Quinn said.  

She urged de Blasio to once again move single adults from group shelters back into hotels.

“We need to have that happen again,” she said. “It made a massive difference.”

Ernest Poree, a musician who became homeless last year, said he tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday and was transferred from a Manhattan hotel for people with medical needs to an isolation hotel in Long Island City. His roommate had tested positive for COVID a week earlier, he said.

Poree, who said he has received his vaccinations and booster shot, said he appreciated the security of his single room but dreaded yet another move after his isolation period. He was previously transferred from a shelter run by the organization CORE Services after their executive was accused of financial improprieties

“It’s one thing after another,” he said. “And this is an awful lot.” 

Kenneth Jones, another Queens shelter resident, said he is taking every precaution to protect himself from exposure to the latest strain of coronavirus. Jones has been staying in a private room in a hotel for people with medical needs and said the arrangement has made him feel relatively safe.

Still, he said, “you always have to worry and you just have to protect yourself as best as possible.”

“Stay masked up, do social distancing and just got to be careful,” Jones added. “I had both of my shots but this variant is super nasty.”