A legal services provider representing homeless New Yorkers has sued the city for its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, alleging it needlessly endangers those in city shelters.
The Legal Aid Society claims in a suit that prolonged use of shared space in city shelters, such as communal rooms used for sleeping and dining, contradicts public health guidance and doesn’t go far enough to stem the spread of the virus. The complaint was filed Thursday against the Department of Homeless Services in New York State Supreme Court.
“Despite an abundance of vacant hotel rooms — to the point where some hotels are in danger of permanently closing — and federal funding” to provide single-occupancy rooms, “the city has taken only half-measures to protect single adult homeless individuals,” Legal Aid said in a statement.
Legal Aid wants DHS to provide a hotel room for every single, adult homeless New Yorker for the “duration of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
But DHS says this demand is impractical. The agency is currently using 139 hotel locations as shelters citywide to combat the spread of Covid-19. The agency estimated that to meet the demands of the lawsuit, it would have to use more than twice that number of hotels toward that effort.
A spokesperson for DHS said its use of hotels “over the past seven months has stopped the spread of this deadly virus and saved lives,” disputing “sensationalized” claims by Legal Aid. “Our approach is working, so we will stay the course,” the spokesperson said.
According to Legal Aid’s analysis of the citywide death toll, the age-adjusted mortality rate for single adults in homeless shelters is 80 percent higher than that of the city’s general population. So far, the city says that 104 homeless New Yorkers have died after contracting the virus.
Joshua Goldfein, a lawyer with Legal Aid, said DHS protections originate from a time before Covid was known to transmit through the air. “We now understand it’s an airborne illness,” he said, noting the city had forbidden all indoor restaurant dining but not communal eating in homeless shelters.
“The city is behind on the science,” he added.
While the city does not track how many people sleep in shared versus single rooms, said Goldfein, he estimates the ratio is about 50-50. He also characterized the city’s testing scheme for the homeless population as insufficient, saying each person is given the option to test once every two weeks but that few volunteer. Once someone does test positive, the city will isolate the infected person in a separate hotel with single-occupancy rooms.
In April, the city announced it would move 2,500 homeless persons into hotel rooms to avoid housing them in congregate shelters, where concerns were raised over the spread of the virus. The city says two-thirds of all the single adults served by DHS, or 12,000 people, currently reside in commercial hotel rooms.
But that move has faced pushback in some neighborhoods. On the Upper West Side, some residents protested when nearly 300 men were moved into the Lucerne Hotel, leading to a back-and-forth over whether those residents would remain or be moved to another neighborhood. Most recently, a judge ruled that residents of the Lucerne could remain in place.