The city began a long-anticipated and controversial push to relocate homeless adults back into group shelters last week, after residents had lived for more than a year in hotels throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel across from Penn Station in Manhattan, at least one man vowed to stay put.
“They didn’t tell me where I was going,” said Anthony Campbell, 51, reached over the phone in his hotel room as shelter workers there warned him he could be arrested for trespassing. “Ten minutes was all they gave me for preparation. I don’t know where I’m going yet.”
Campbell, who’d entered the shelters system when his sister died of COVID last spring, had organized with about two dozen other residents housed at the Sheraton to stay in their hotel rooms despite the city’s vacate order, though he’d lost contact with them. He said he was unsure how many of those men had followed through with the protest.
Unlike Campbell, most residents didn’t meet the order to vacate with the same resolve. Instead, many solemnly stuffed their belongings into black trash bags. Each person was given a maximum of two bags. Anything more had to be abandoned. They milled around outside the Sheraton with their items while waiting to be shuttled to another location via school bus.
“They’re ignoring all of these people in here. They’re moving them around like cattle. They don’t care,” Campbell said. “They don’t have a plan to have us quarantine if something happens. This is not a plan; if you want a plan there should be affordable housing for every American. No one should be homeless.”
“Everything’s a rush job all of a sudden. They don’t have an idea where I’m supposed to be located; no idea,” said Shade Michael Witherspoon, 61, who’d been in the shelter system for three years, staying at the 40th Street hotel for more than a year. “I don’t want to cry, I really don’t want to cry. Where I’m gonna go? Where they got me going, man?”
Others said they were told by shelter workers, who declined to comment at the site, that they were being moved to a congregate shelter in the Bronx where some had been staying before the pandemic. Some men said they’d just gotten notice they had to leave the night before while others had heard about it two or three days in advance.
“I’m surprised there’s not a riot going on right now. Who wants to leave?” said Anthony Malloy, 56, who said he’d been approved for an apartment with a housing voucher, but there’d been weeks of delays and he wasn’t sure why.
Malloy said he feared a return to the group shelter setting.
“It’s gonna be robbing and stealing, fights, all type of drug distribution. It’s something we thought we escaped from, now we’re going right back into the hole.”
Gabriel Rodriguez, 35, said living in the hotel had been a welcome respite from living in a crowded group shelter where one is constantly vigilant for themselves and their belongings.
“It’s like you get a glimpse of freedom. You feel a sense of feeling independent. You feel like anybody else, who’s working and has a decent house, you feel like home,” he said, adding he’s a maintenance worker. “You feel sometimes like powerless, but I’m used to it. You get used it, but it’s very sad.”
About 9,000 people in the city’s homeless system have been living in hotels during the pandemic down from about 10,000 from last year, according to the city. Shelter providers were supposed to warn residents of the move out in mid-June. About 300 men had been living at the Sheraton and residents of the surrounding areas had complained about open-air drug use and public safety concerns in the area, Patch reported earlier this year, after which the city had said it would relocate shelter residents.
Isaac McGinn, a spokesperson for the city Department of Social Services, which oversees the shelter system, said the plan to move people from congregate facilities into hotels had always been a temporary plan, and it worked to lower infection rates among shelter residents.
Of the 17,000 single adults living in shelters, 6,750 had received a COVID-19 vaccine directly through DSS. Some residents could have received the shot through the regular city or state systems, but DSS wouldn’t have access to that data. McGinn said the agency didn’t have tallies of vaccination rates among residents in family shelters because it focused additional vaccination efforts on single adults slated to live in group settings.
“Now that health indicators are headed in the right direction and [New York State] has issued new guidance on congregate shelter operations, we are phasing out this emergency program and returning to shelter from these temporary relocations, as we have said we would throughout the pandemic,” he said.
Friday afternoon, Shams DaBaron, the homeless rights advocate who gained citywide notoriety for his campaign on behalf of homeless men at the Upper West Side Lucerne Hotel last year, rushed to Midtown after hearing about the protest to provide support from outside. He spoke to Campbell upstairs in his hotel room, over the phone.
“You don’t have to leave. Is there any way to establish communication with the other 24 men?” DaBaron asked, eventually hanging up after a back and forth. “Stay where you at, I got you.”
“Nobody told them to do this. They decided, ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’” DaBaron said. “These people are doing something just to send a message to say we should be treated with more dignity.”
But by Friday afternoon, Campbell had given up the fight, not wanting to risk arrest. He made his way to a downtown group shelter, but wasn’t sure if he’d stay the night.
“They just gonna move us,” he said through tears over the phone. “I don’t know where I’m at. We are good men.”
(UPDATE: This story has been updated to include that Campbell moved out of the shelter by Friday afternoon.)