Homeless Hotel Residents Decry Planned Return To Shelters

Last April, in response to spiraling COVID-19 cases across the five boroughs, Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to transfer thousands of homeless New Yorkers out of congregate settings and into empty hotel rooms. Now, as the city moves to end its emergency hotel program, some formerly homeless residents are vowing to fight back against a return to the pre-pandemic status quo.

At a press conference outside the mayor’s Upper East Side mansion on Monday, several hotel residents said they could not imagine going back to the shelter system — even as many reported receiving letters in recent weeks indicating their stays will come to an end at an unspecified date in the near future.

“They want us to go back with no reasoning or no explanation,” charged Milton Perez, a Bronx native who spent five years in the shelter system, before moving into the Williams Hotel in Brownsville last year.

He noted that the pandemic had forced many New Yorkers to confront the shortcomings of the city’s notoriously crowded congregate facilities, fueling legislation at both the city and state level that could soon help those struggling to find affordable housing. “Everything has changed except how they run the shelters,” Perez added.

Among the biggest reforms is a bill passed in the City Council to increase the value of a city voucher by nearly 40%, potentially giving thousands of homeless New Yorkers access to permanent housing.

But last minute changes to the bill will delay its implementation by six months. And while the federal government has vowed to continue funding the hotels through September, de Blasio has indicated that the transition will happen soon, possibly as early as July 1st. (A city spokesperson declined to say whether hotel residents will get 30 days notice before they are given a move-out date).

The battle over the fate of hotel residents comes as the total shelter population in New York City hovers around 48,000 people. Even as the number of families experiencing homeless is significantly down, the number of single adults seeking shelter reached an all time high earlier this year.

The monthly count of people in the city's shelter system

The monthly count of people in the city’s shelter system DHS

“Our staff and provider partners continue to do extraordinary and vital work caring for New Yorkers in need under these unprecedented circumstances,” a spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services said in an emailed statement. “The temporary use of emergency relocation hotels was always intended to be temporary and not intended to be used in this way on an ongoing basis.”

Since moving roughly 10,000 individuals from shelters and into hotel rooms, the city has faced sustained backlash from some neighbors, particularly on the Upper West Side and in Midtown. In some cases, the city has relented those demands.

But homeless advocates say that evicting hotel residents too quickly will only create more visible homelessness, as more people seek refuge in the streets and on the subways. In recent months, the city has increased its sweeps of homeless people, despite CDC guidance against the practice unless people can be guaranteed private homes.

The short-term solution, according to some homeless New Yorkers, is to allow the hotel residents to remain in place, at least until the city can scale up its ability to provide permanent affordable housing.

“We’re not chess pieces,” said Peter Trapani, who has spent time in both homeless shelters and a hotel. He has a city-issue voucher, but like many recipients, has not been able to find an apartment that it would cover.

“We’re human beings who need some place to live,” he added. “Sixteen men to a room is not living.”