By Azure Gilman
April 13, 2020
Tens of thousands of people living without a home in New York City — an often-ignored and particularly vulnerable population — face even greater uncertainty amid the spread of COVID-19 as homeless service providers must adapt to social distancing and face growing strain.
There were 57,842 children and adults in shelters as of April 9, according to the most recent numbers from the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS).
The number of single homeless adults in shelters has more than doubled in the past decade, according to a 2019 report published by Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy and direct service organization. The number of homeless families increased to 15,000 from 9,600 during that same time period, according to the report.
It’s a population particularly vulnerable to coronavirus due to crowded shelters and food insecurity. Meanwhile, places that would otherwise be helpful for handwashing and showering, like libraries or recreation center gyms, are now closed throughout the city.
“This emergency is a particular struggle for the folks that we serve who are already struggling with their homelessness,” said James Winans, interim CEO of The Bowery Mission, a service organization based in Manhattan. “Now they’re being told to go home, and they don’t have a home to go to.”
As of April 9, there were 343 total positive coronavirus cases that the DHS was tracking. Of these, 300 were cases among sheltered New Yorkers; of the rest who’ve tested positive, several were unsheltered New Yorkers. The total number of cases includes 20 deaths.
Homeless service organizations have changed their protocols to try to accommodate fallout from the pandemic, sometimes forced to cut the number of shelter beds available to maintain social distancing. Those organizations, which are already seeing an increase of people in need, are themselves sometimes suffering from reduced staff who are quarantining or unable to work on the front lines.
Helping while distancing
Homeless service providers throughout the city are changing their methods to continue providing essentials at a safe distance.
The Bowery Mission offers shelter, meals and showers, among a host of other services. Whereas previously, they served meals inside, they are now serving them outside so that people can better socially distance. They have also set up a mobile shower and outdoor hand washing stations at different locations.
The organization has altered its sleeping arrangements within a limited amount of space at different residential locations by moving beds around so that there is more room among the 325 people who stay overnight. They have also established isolation areas for those who are symptomatic, sometimes in places that were not previously residential, Winans said. But they have not cut down on the number of people they serve.
“Space is limited, and we really haven’t been able to spread out as much as you might want to,” he said. “We don’t see that it would be acceptable to put people out on the street in this emergency.”
Coronavirus has affected clients of the Bowery Mission in various other ways as well.
James Williams, 50, works as a forklift operator, and sleeps at the Bowery Mission. He said he’s been at the Bowery Mission for about six months while he gets back on his feet. Now, because of quarantine, he’s unable to go look at potential apartments to rent in person.
“It’s going to be pretty hard if they’re not letting anybody in,” Williams said.
Shelters for the young among those hit hard
The Streetwork Project, a part of Safe Horizon, a victim assistance organization, operates two drop-in centers in Manhattan that provide daytime services, a mobile community outreach unit and a crisis shelter that serves people from age 16 to 20. Around mid-March, they were forced to cut the number of beds available from 24 to 12 to keep people safely distanced.
“A lot of the youth providers right now are completely at full capacity or are not able to do any intake or provide any services outside a bagged lunch, if that,” said Joean Villarin, director of Streetwork Project.
Drop-in centers for homeless youth have been particularly hard hit by coronavirus, according to Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth. These are programs where young people can get showers, laundry, meals and other basic needs met.
Along with some drop-in centers closing, she has noticed an increase in the number of homeless youth who need beds but can’t get them, as runaway and homeless youth shelters operate within a different system from the adult system and with fewer beds. Some young people, particularly in the LGBTQ community, are becoming homeless for the first time during coronavirus.
“You have a lot of homeless young people that aren’t safe at home,” Powlovich said. “They’re either leaving because they don’t feel safe or they feel uncomfortable, or they’re being kicked out.”
Staffing at The Streetwork Project has been affected by coronavirus, according to Villarin, and is down by at least a third. People who believe they have been exposed to the virus are quarantining at home.
The organization is trying to stagger its staff so fewer people are in the same space and increase digital outreach on platforms such as Instagram.
“If a young person needs a shower, we’re not going to deny them that, of course,” Villarin said. “We refuse to not provide the service. We just have to do it differently.”
Finding alternative places to shelter the homeless
In an attempt to control the spread of coronavirus, New York City has opened hundreds of hotel rooms to homeless New Yorkers who are confirmed positive, or non-confirmed but symptomatic, and do not need hospitalization. Some particularly vulnerable people, beginning with those over 70, are being transferred to dedicated shelters for isolation, according to the DHS.
The Department of Social Services, which includes DHS, has developed a screening protocol for shelters to identify and connect clients who are experiencing possible symptoms to assessment and hospital care if necessary. For the unsheltered homeless, street outreach workers are identifying people who may be experiencing symptoms and connecting them to testing and assessment.
On Saturday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that by April 20, the city would move 6,000 single homeless adults into hotel settings.
“We will use those hotels aggressively as a tool to support homeless individuals, to strike the right balance in our shelters to make sure people who need to be isolated are isolated,” the mayor said.
Advocates have been calling for de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to do more, and house tens of thousands in the city’s vacant hotel rooms. In a petition, VOCAL-NY, Picture the Homeless and other organizations have also called for the stop of all law enforcement sweeps and targeting of people who are homeless. Requests for comment sent to Cuomo and de Blasio were not immediately returned.
Surge of need
Homeless service organizations say they are already seeing the consequences of the surge of unemployment caused by coronavirus.
Before the pandemic, the Bowery Mission was serving around 250 people for each meal. Now, they are serving around 500 people during their lunch service, according to Winans.
“We are seeing new faces in the line, of the recently unemployed who continue to be housed,” Winans said. “But they’re hungry.”
Christine Quinn is the former speaker of the New York City Council, and the current president and CEO of nonprofit Win, the largest provider of family shelter and supportive housing in New York City.
“There are going to be more and more homeless people when this is quote-unquote over, because so many people have lost their jobs and so many of the moms we work with are losing their jobs,” Quinn said.
Service providers are worried for what the future holds for New York City’s most vulnerable who were already struggling before the virus hit.
“I think we’re going to see increased trauma levels, more mental health issues, more employment and job issues, more unemployment,” Quinn said. “Some people get all better from coronavirus. And some people don’t get all better.”