Since March, New York City’s Department of Homeless Services has achieved something extraordinary: relocating 10,000 individuals from congregate shelters to hotel rooms as part of a highly effective initiative to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the homeless community. The city’s effort has been unmatched by other U.S. cities that attempted similar interventions; Los Angeles County, for example, where just over 48,000 people live unsheltered, currently has only 3,737 individuals living in hotel rooms, with nearly 15,000 hotel rooms occupied statewide.
But now, bowing to political pressure, led by the tabloids and nimby Facebook groups, Mayor Bill de Blasio seems to be losing his nerve. Emboldened by decreasing viral transmission rates, he’s declared that he is considering moving people out of hotels and back into shelters.
Now is exactly the wrong moment to wind the program down. Tourists aren’t coming back anytime soon to fill those rooms, but with the job market stalled and the statewide eviction moratorium about to end, homelessness is almost certainly about to spike. Instead, a large coalition of advocacy groups known as #HomelessCantStayHome has asked him to expand the program by making 30,000 hotel rooms available immediately, leading the way for other cities to do the same.
The objections to using hotels are being overblown. If you had spent the last few weeks just reading New York tabloids, you’d think that the Upper West Side has been transformed into an uninhabitable hellscape. According to dozens of alarmist screeds in the New York Post, New York Daily News, and the Daily Mail, three hotels t
hat have opened their doors to homeless New Yorkers to protect them from contracting the novel coronavirus have sent the neighborhood spiraling into “crime and chaos.”
But forcing the unhoused back into still risky living situations in the city-run shelter system will, in the end, result in even more people sleeping on the streets.
COVID-19 infection rates may be decreasing in the city, making it seem like the pandemic is over. But New York City is moving toward a historic wave of evictions not seen since the Great Depression. Homelessness has been steadily rising in many major cities, where leaders aren’t planning for the even more dramatic increase expected in the near future. Meanwhile, the pandemic isn’t going anywhere. Expanding the hotel project now could help New York care for the next wave of renters who will still need to shelter in place yet will no longer be able to afford their living situations come fall.
As many as 1 million renters in the city are on the edge of losing their homes. One in four of New York City’s tenants did not pay rent from April through June, and even though NYC’s eviction moratorium has been extended to October, there are over 200,000 evictions that were filed before March.
The coming wave of evictions, which will disproportionately affect Black and brown communities, has been dubbed a “second pandemic” by the #HomelessCantStayHome coalition. “The only way to protect homeless people and end homelessness is through the provision of safe spaces to self-isolate, with a direct and rapid pathway to decent, deeply affordable housing in all communities,” read a letter to city officials posted last week.
In California, the pandemic has finally pushed the state to use its power to more widely utilize hotels and house homeless people, something advocates have long pushed for. Earlier this summer, as an attempt to get ahead of the next impending catastrophe, Governor Gavin Newsom launched a $1 billion program that will allocate grants to cities to purchase hotels as long-term and permanent housing for homeless residents.
That’s not enough funding to house all of California’s 150,000 unhoused residents, of course, not to mention the people who are beginning to be evicted now. But New York City might have a chance to avoid the California crisis that’s been a decade in the making. Currently, only about 20 percent of New York hotels are housing homeless residents. With tourism unlikely to rebound this year — and hotel owners happy to have some revenue trickling in — there’s no excuse for not using the empty hotels as housing.
Instead of allowing its wealthiest Zip Codes to create life-endangering barriers for its most marginalized residents, New York City could take major strides to keep its communities healthy and housed. While cities across the country fail to meet this moment, New York has a chance to lead the way.