Homeless man in Harlem (156037)
Homeless man in Harlem Credit: Bill Moore

Although homelessness has been a longstanding issue in New York City, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem even more.

Reports indicate that calls to 311 about homelessness were up 72% in August compared to last year. The Mayor’s Management Report released last month reveals that homelessness is at a five-year high this year.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting New York, there was already a record number of homeless people. While the number of homeless families has decreased, the number of homeless single adults is becoming a growing issue. Many single adults have been displaced from already unstable living conditions such as room rentals. As a result, homeless encampments are becoming more visible on city streets.

The city has had to respond to the safety of homeless shelter residents living in congregate shelters, which have a high risk of spreading COVID-19. Homeless individuals in these shelters are more likely to share dining facilities, dorm rooms and bathrooms, allowing for the virus to spread.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week that shelters should open back up and that guidelines will be provided by the state to open them safely.

“Local governments closed shelters during COVID; they should reopen those shelters,” he said. “We know how to open schools, restaurants, flexible art space, shelters. The weather is getting cold. Nobody should be living on the street, especially in the middle of a global health pandemic.”

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, unsheltered and sheltered homeless individuals, who are mostly people of color, suffer higher mortality rates due to serious underlying health conditions. Homeless individuals are also less likely to have been tested for COVID-19.

“The vast majority of COVID deaths that we’ve seen among the homeless population have been among sheltered single adults,” said Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier. “How the city has had to respond is to provide the safe space for people to be able to socially distance and follow public health guidance. That has meant opening up a lot of hotel rooms or utilizing empty hotel rooms for homeless single adults.”

The city has moved single adult males into hotels but not without a fight. At the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side, nearby residents have complained about the homeless men in their neighborhood.

The hotel houses over 200 homeless men but nine elderly residents were already living in the hotel. This week, the city announced plans to move the men to a hotel on Wall Street.

The homeless men are clients from Project Renewal, an organization that provides emergency, transitional, and permanent housing and other services to homeless New Yorkers. This week, elected officials and residents of the Lucerne Hotel gathered in front of the residence calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city to halt the relocation.

“After two weeks of indecision, the mayor caved in to the pressure from those Upper Westsiders who claimed to want safer streets, but who felt that it was time to form militias to get the ‘scum’ from out of their backyards and wanted to have us eradicated or exterminated with chemicals. This decision to move will cause the discontinuance of community-provided services and a destabilizing interruption of Project Renewal’s services,” said one resident known as “da Homeless Hero.”

Corinne Low, co-founder of the UWS Open Hearts Initiative, said that the relocation is racial due to the fact that most of the residents are Black.

“With his decision to force the displacement of Black New Yorkers at the demand of a mostly white community, the mayor is siding with and emboldening segregationists,” Low said. “It’s time to be honest about what this move is about: keeping this community homogenous.”

The city also announced it will not move families from other homeless facilities including the Harmonia Shelter on East 31st Street and the Flatlands Family Residence in Brooklyn.

The Department of Homeless Services did not respond to the AmNews at press time for a comment on the situation. In a statement released to the media, the agency said it’s looking for alternative, non-congregate sites to begin phasing out the use of emergency COVID hotels until health experts say it’s safe to return to congregate settings.