On Sunday, July 11, Earl, a homeless man living at the Upper West Side’s Belleclaire Hotel was notified by letter dated in early June that as of that Tuesday, the hotel would no longer operate as a shelter. The next day, residents like Earl scrambled to pack the two bags they are permitted to bring with them, throwing away belongings and large amounts of food as they prepared to be transferred back to congregate shelters.
The letter had been distributed just two days after a lawsuit brought to federal court by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of the Coalition for the Homeless temporarily paused the transfers — halting Earl’s move with it. Without any explanation from the Department of Homeless Services, Earl and the other 280 residents of the Belleclaire were left confused and uncertain about their living situation, unwittingly in the middle of a legal battle that would dictate their next steps.
The lawsuit, which says that Mayor de Blasio’s plan to transfer the 8,000 homeless residents from the hotels back into shelters didn’t provide enough time or consideration to the immuno-compromised or disabled, comes after pleas from activist groups around the city for the transfers to be reconsidered.
According to the Legal Aid Society, many of the hotel residents have serious health concerns or disabilities that make their move back to congregate shelters, which frequently house up to 15 people in a single room, potentially fatal.
Hospitalizations are on the rise as the highly contagious Delta variant makes up the majority of all New York’s COVID cases, with activist groups calling the shelters “death traps.” Only about 14 percent of the homeless population is vaccinated, and many housing advocates worry that the untimely move could trigger a super-spreader event.
Earl, who requested to use a pseudonym due to concerns that speaking to the press would jeopardize his housing accommodation, echoed the same fear. He had previously contracted COVID while living at a shelter, where it was impossible to socially distance himself while living in a room with no ventilation and 15 other men. “Where I slept, I could reach out my arm and tap the guy next to me to wake him up,” he said. “That’s how close we were all packed in.”
The Legal Aid Society’s lawsuit aims to push the city to fulfill its legal obligation of screening each resident individually to determine if moving back to the shelters is safe for them. Prior to the pause, the city had not been doing so, moving approximately 650 hotel residents back to congregate housing without screenings, some with no notice at all. As recently as July 20, homeless residents of the Indigo Hotel received notices that their transfers to shelters will resume this week.
Josh Goldfein, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said in a statement that the “rushed decision to arbitrarily move thousands of homeless New Yorkers from safe accommodations back to local, crowded shelters is both illegal and inhumane.”
As tension around the unsafe conditions of the city’s shelters rises, New York politicians, mutual aid organizations, and homeless rights groups such as Open Hearts have held events throughout the month.
On July 10, activists marched on Gracie Mansion, hoping to get the attention of the mayor. In addition to advocating for the transfers to be stopped, on July 22, a sleep-in and press conference at Gracie Mansion and City Hall were held to support the immediate implementation of Intro 146, a bill passed by the City Council earlier this year that would increase the value of rental vouchers distributed to help housing-insecure individuals and families. According to housing advocates, the vouchers don’t currently cover enough to find safe, affordable, and stable housing, trapping many homeless in the shelter system.
Rita Wilson, a homeless woman who caught COVID at a congregate shelter, spoke about what she believed could be a potentially life-saving implementation of Intro 146 at a press conference on Thursday. “I went through that one time, I don’t want to go through it again,” she said, describing her harrowing experience getting sick at the shelter. “I want a home.”
In a briefing last week, Mayor de Blasio declined to comment on whether or not the city would implement the bill, saying that he believes the shelters to be the best option for those facing housing insecurity. When asked again about the bill on the Brian Lehrer show, he said that he would have an update on implemcentation as soon as this week.
Earl, who like many others has had difficulty finding viable permanent housing using the rental vouchers, will be transferred back to congregate shelters with other residents of the Belleclaire on July 27. If Intro 146 is implemented, he may be able to transition safely from the shelter to a home of his own.
For him and the hundreds of other homeless New Yorkers in his situation, he says, “All we can do is wait and see. We’re living in limbo again.”
“[The ] rushed decision to arbitrarily move thousands of homeless New Yorkers from safe accommodations back to local, crowded shelters is both illegal and inhumane.” Staff attorney Josh Goldfein, Legal Aid Society