Op-Ed | New York City must do more about homeless policy amid COVID-19

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A homeless individual sleeps within the park’s recreation area.
Photo by Dean Moses

It has been more than a year since the City of New York hastily moved thousands of people living in the DHS congregate shelter system into temporary hotels to protect them against COVID-19. While the move likely saved countless lives, few would argue that the plan was not executed in total disarray. To be sure, the City was in the midst of what we would soon learn was an unprecedented, years-long pandemic that would claim the lives of more than 53,000 New Yorkers (to date).

Just because the move out of congregate shelters was chaotic does not mean that a move back in should be as well. The City, which has long maintained that it has been guided by the science, continues to rush to move thousands of people who have been kept safe from COVID-19 in hotels back into congregate settings at the same time that the Delta variant has us bracing for round two, or perhaps it’s three.

The City itself admits that it has no idea how many people currently living in temporary hotels have been vaccinated and that it has no plans to require or track vaccinations among this vulnerable population, being rendered more so by the City’s own policies. Virus mitigation in congregate shelters is non-existent, as unsheltered, and potentially unvaccinated, New Yorkers are crammed 20-plus to a room, separated by little more than hope and a prayer.

In a short time, we have learned a lot from COVID-19.  We have learned the importance of being near friends, family and loved ones. We have learned who the real heroes are. We have learned just how small a two-bedroom NYC apartment can feel when you are working and schooling from home.

But it seems the City has not learned a thing when it comes to homeless policy in the time of COVID-19. 

The City was sued by the Legal Aid Society because it was not following its own law with respect to moving unsheltered people with disabilities. The City then agreed to temporarily pause future moves, but Legal Aid was forced back into court when the City began moving people once again, haphazardly and without a plan. This time, a federal judge sided with the advocates and ordered the City to cease all moves and gave it until August 19th to devise a plan. 

The City has been criticized by housing and homelessness advocates because they claim the City has not communicated transfer plans to those who will be moved. And the City has been called out by the very people who are in their care: unsheltered New Yorkers, who are scared and confused about futures over which they have no say or control. Hundreds of public health professionals and organizations are demanding that the City stop the transfers for the good of all New Yorkers.  

It should not take multiple court orders and this much pressure for the City to do the right thing. 

Nevertheless, the City persists. It persists in implementing a wrongheaded move that will endanger the lives of New Yorkers who have done nothing wrong, if you don’t consider homelessness a crime, of course.

I will reiterate now what I said at the beginning of COVID: unsheltered New Yorkers are not chattel, and they cannot be shuffled around in a political game, especially not during the potential third wave of a deadly pandemic.  Their very lives are on the line.

According to one homeless services provider, ‘Today, more New Yorkers are experiencing homelessness than ever before. In a city of more than 8.3 million people, nearly one in every 106 New Yorkers is homeless — that’s nearly 80,000 men, women and children. Every night, nearly 4,000 people sleep on the street, in the subway system or in other public spaces.’

The chaos that reigned supreme at the beginning of the pandemic was forgivable, excused by a deadly learning curve. The chaos now, after more than a year of experience, is simply inexcusable, and is needlessly endangering the lives of thousands of innocent and unsheltered New Yorkers.