“There’s no plan:” Homeless brace for coronavirus

Squeezed for funding and space, New Yorkers without homes are uniquely vulnerable

A homeless person walks by Time Square in the look for shelter (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
A homeless person in Times Square (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

With few political champions and many vulnerabilities to the coronavirus, New York City’s homeless now run a risk of catastrophe.

Reports last week documented 59 positive cases in shelters, and the first two deaths of shelter residents from Covid-19 were recorded Thursday and Friday. Social distancing? At one Bronx housing facility operated by the city, 45 homeless families share one microwave.

New York City’s more than 62,000 homeless are perhaps more susceptible to the deadly illness than any other population: Overcrowded shelters render them unable to keep six feet away from other people, and they are more likely to have underlying health conditions.

The nonprofits who aid the homeless have scant resources — 58 percent have less than three months’ cash on hand — and now face financial devastation as they cancel fundraising events, which they need because government contracts do not cover the full cost of the services they demand.

Some $4 billion to help the homeless was included in the $2 trillion federal stimulus package, but that will be spread thin, and political insiders said the latest draft of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state budget includes no such funding. With the pandemic projected to cost the state $9 billion to $15 billion in tax revenue and a top Cuomo administration aide saying this week that the governor is not open to new taxes, advocates fear social services will be cut.

“We’re afraid of an austerity budget,” said Charles Khan, organizing director at Strong Economy for All, an advocacy group fighting inequality. “If Gov. Cuomo doesn’t act [to increase revenue], the only way to [balance the budget] is to push cuts on everyone else. And it looks like that’s what his plan is.”

Homeless service providers and shelter residents are hoping for a champion, but the path forward is unclear. In the meantime, organizers such as Paulette Soltani, political director of VOCAL-NY, are bracing for the worst.

“It’s terrible. There’s no coordinated plan,” said Soltani of the city’s response to the coronavirus in the homeless shelter system. “It’s going to spread like wildfire.”

Stay home

Johanna Garcia and her two small children live in a room at the facility with the widely shared microwave, 20 minutes east of Yankee Stadium by foot. The former Days Inn is one of many hotels where the Department of Homeless Services houses families temporarily.

“We’re all just cooped up,” Garcia said, of her new routine under the state’s stay-home order. “We live in one room with a bathroom. My daughter and I share a bed; my son sleeps in a Pack-n-Play.”

Schools and restaurants have been shuttered across New York, and finding activities for her 4-year old daughter has been a challenge. She cares for her 10-month old son full-time, as day care centers have closed, Garcia said.

“School is out of session, so we try to at least follow some sort of schedule,” Garcia said, speaking just above a whisper as her baby slept. “I made a circle on the floor and there are some books. I decorated the wall with the alphabet, letters and the weather.”

Trapped in the shelter with her children, she is increasingly anxious about the spread of the coronavirus. “I see residential staff with masks or gloves, but we don’t have hand sanitizer, or anything else,” Garcia said.

Garcia is not sure if anyone in her shelter has tested positive for the virus, but she is wary of using the common areas — which she must do daily, to confirm her attendance — and is closely monitoring the others’ symptoms.

“A lot of people have been sick or have a sore throat lately,” she said. “And being that we share all the common space, hallways, the room downstairs — it’s the only room, we have to sign in and out each day.”

Garcia has observed the DHS-operated facility allowing case managers to work from home. Some shelter staffers are skipping their shifts for fear of catching the virus.

“Personal protective equipment for staff at the front lines is a real, real problem,” said Catherine Trapani, executive director of Homeless Services United. “We don’t have access to surgical masks or N-95 masks for shelter workers. People are calling out of work, calling in sick because they’re afraid.”

To help keep shelter workers at their posts, Michelle Jackson, whose nonprofit Human Service Council represents 170 homeless service providers, has joined Trapani and others to argue for more pay, but the city has been reluctant.

“Those workers should be getting some sort of incentive pay — they are out there just like first responders,” said Jackson. “But the city has not committed to incentive or hazard pay, and the state hasn’t done anything.”

Garcia, who has a rent voucher from the city capped at $1,200, has been trying to leave the facility for a year, but has found that task difficult — she has two children, and so is not eligible for the few apartments that are within her budget.

“If I had a voucher to pay fair market [value] for a place, I wouldn’t be at risk the way I am now,” said Winston Tokuhisa, who lives in a shelter. “I have to deal with cramped quarters: one roommate, two feet away from each other. I could have been one of those people who passed away.”

“This isn’t a bake sale”

Even before the pandemic, there was an urgent need for increased funding to address homelessness.

Plagued by late and stingy payments from the city, nonprofits housing the homeless routinely operate at a loss and 20 percent are insolvent, according to Jackson. They make up the funding gap with charity events, but the coronavirus hit in the middle of “gala season,” Trapani said.

Her organization has a gala around this time every year at the Prince George Ballroom, a once-rundown welfare hotel where formerly homeless persons live in apartments, while the ballroom below generates revenue from events.

“This isn’t a bake sale,” said Trapani. “It is one-quarter of our operating revenue for the year.”

Meanwhile, Trapani is negotiating with the city for her group’s members to receive extra funding for cleaning supplies. But she says the city’s willingness to pay for cost overruns as a result of coronavirus has been inconsistent at best.

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“The city will pay for temp workers to come in for extra shifts, but they won’t pay time-and-a-half for existing workers to do that,” Trapani said. “Sometimes they will pay for Health Department–ordered deep clean, but not always. It’s case-by-case.”

With providers’ expenses stacking up and their fundraising prowess crippled, the coronavirus may lay waste to the sector.

“Our ability to plug holes where the city doesn’t fund has diminished,” Trapani said. “There is a financial storm brewing, and we do not yet know what the damage will be.”

Like the Neo-Renaissance ballroom subsidizing low-income renters, billionaires could pay a little more to fund vital human services, commented Clayton Roulhac-Carr, who lives in a single-room-occupancy shelter.

“Why is Gov. Cuomo protecting their wealth before my life?” said Roulhac-Carr. “We cannot protect the homeless people without money and resources. We have to raise taxes right now on the ultra-rich.”

Cuomo said last week he would oppose tax increases, and his budget director Robert Mujica said that in a down market, “taxes don’t appear to be the answer.”

“You can’t get blood from a stone,” Mujica told the Wall Street Journal.

According to his projections, the pandemic will mean up to $15 billion in lost revenue for the state, whose budget is due by April 1.

To avoid raising taxes, Cuomo is looking for places to cut. At a press conference Friday, Cuomo said New York has “no state revenues to speak of.”

Then on Sunday, Cuomo said he would “make drastic cuts to the budget, like you’ve never seen.”

“We all believed federal legislation would have money in it to help us with the revenue shortfall, and it didn’t,” Cuomo said. “The help we were waiting for from Washington never came.”

Last week, a Cuomo-appointed panel recommended nearly $400 million in Medicaid cuts for hospitals, drawing howls from some legislators. Little relief is on the way for renters and even less for the homeless.

The $2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress includes $4 billion for homeless assistance grants nationwide through 2022 — a paltry sum compared to the need, homeless advocates say. New York City’s own budget for the Department of Homeless Services last year was $1.8 billion. Less than 10 percent of that came from the state and a little more than a third came from the federal government.

“This is a budget season like we’ve never seen before,” said Amy Blumsack of Neighbors Together. “It would be a major mistake on Cuomo’s part to not do everything in his power to do what New Yorkers need. It would be a massive failure of leadership on his part.”

Get a room

Besides taxing the wealthy, the city and state could take immediate action to counter the spread of the coronavirus, homeless advocates argue: open empty hotel rooms to the homeless.

“We desperately need the city to start moving people into hotel rooms,” said Josh Dean, whose organization human.nyc works with the unsheltered. “In theory, we could move the entire homeless population off the street.”

Last week, according to hospitality data firm STR, hotel occupancy in New York City plummeted more than 80 percent to 16.8 percent. STR counts 705 hotel properties and 128,129 rooms, which means roughly 106,000 are empty.

Six hotels have stepped up to house medical personnel and non-critical patients — among them the Four Seasons on East 57th Street, which might have the most expensive rooms in the country.

Advocates argue the same strategy could be used for homeless persons, enabling them to adhere to social-distancing guidelines, instead of creating more drop-in centers, which have been flooded as gyms and soup kitchens shutter. But the Office of Emergency management told The Real Deal it is still searching for additional sites for such emergency intake facilities.

‘The city’s solution is to have more drop-in centers to deal with the demand,” said Trapani. “If that’s bad for social distancing … why would we open more? Why not just put people in hotels and give people meals?”

As the city, state and federal governments omit homeless New Yorkers from their policy solutions — after each acted swiftly to halt evictions, protect homeowners and bail out federally-backed mortgages — some advocates are hoping for a Hail Mary from federal agencies.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Federal Emergency Management Agency could provide a fast solution for the homeless by issuing vouchers for hotels or building emergency shelters, as they have done after natural disasters, according to Dianne Enriquez of the Center for Popular Democracy.

“HUD and FEMA have the capacity to do that based on previous disaster work,” said Enriquez, who argues that the pandemic should be treated with the same urgency as a natural disaster. “It’s been a hit-or-miss process, and there has been a lot of critique around their response — but they do have the capacity.”

Andres Perez, an organizer at Picture the Homeless, shrugs at the federal stimulus package, which at $2 trillion is the largest in U.S. history.

Last year, his organization, a nonprofit that serves the homeless, all but closed for lack of funding.

“People are being packed up in shelters — it’s bad,” Perez said, of the spreading virus. “It doesn’t sound like [$4 billion] would be enough money.”

Whether or not policymakers prevent disaster for New York City’s homeless, some hope the connection between housing security and public health will become evident, leading to long-term change.

“The coronavirus is like a blacklight,” said Khan. “All the things that may have looked okay in New York, but were huge problems, now people can see them. You have to find housing for people, not pack them in.”