New York City’s effort to move more than 8,000 homeless people from pandemic hotels to barrackslike group shelters ground to a halt on Friday morning, after the Legal Aid Society filed a motion accusing the city of violating the rights of people with respiratory conditions and other medical and psychological problems.
The decision stopped one transfer mid-move. In the pouring rain, women with walkers who had been staying at the Hotel at Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan trooped onto a converted school bus headed to a shelter, only to be told to get off and rejoin the crowd in the lobby that had assembled, each with their belongings crammed into two city-issued jumbo trash bags.
Some women embraced and wept with relief. Others were furious. “All of this for nothing!” Thyessa Williams said.
“I could have gone to work,” said Shayadaia Summers, a groundskeeper for the city housing authority. “They made me take off from work to keep us in the building?”
The city’s sudden decision followed several chaotic weeks of forced relocations, angry protests and an hourslong standoff last week when 25 men locked themselves in their rooms at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel near Times Square.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that the hotels, which the city began using to house homeless people shortly after lockdown began to stem the spread of the coronavirus, were never meant as a permanent measure. He said last week that shelters were “where we can provide people the most support on their way to a better life, and we just have to accept that, if we’re moving forward in every other way and putting Covid behind us.”
But homeless people and their advocates said the transfers were ill-timed and in many cases indifferent to health needs, sending people back to shelters where 10 or 20 people typically sleep in the same room, at a moment when the virus’s more-contagious Delta variant is on the rise and the city does not know how many homeless people have been vaccinated.
Under a 2017 class-action settlement, people with disabilities who can’t access dorm rooms in group shelters or face health risks in that setting can apply for an exemption called a “reasonable accommodation” that would keep them in a single or double room. If their needs are “apparent,” the city should take the lead in helping them apply and grant their accommodation on the spot.
But the Legal Aid Society’s motion, filed on Thursday in federal court, says that in its haste to complete the moves by the end of July, the city’s Department of Homeless Services had violated the settlement by routinely denying extensions of hotel stays and not giving others a chance to request them. Others were told that no extensions would be granted.
“The city is moving people faster than it can screen them,” said Joshua Goldfein, a staff attorney for the society. “So every day, at every hotel, we are meeting people who have disabilities that are not taken into account when D.H.S. was assigning them a new placement and as a result are being sent to places that are dangerous for them or can’t serve them.” He said hundreds of people had been affected.
Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for D.H.S., said the city had already completed transfers from 23 of more than 60 hotels. The city was “holding in abeyance the scheduled transition” from three others planned for Friday and Monday, including the Hotel at Fifth, which has served as a shelter for women with disabilities, pending a court hearing on Tuesday, he said.
Ms. Williams, 48, an out-of-work pharmacy technician, showed paperwork that said she had been granted an exemption and would be going to a single or double room. Yet she was slated to be put on a bus bound for a group shelter on 52nd Street until the transfer was canceled.
Helen Strom, the supervisor of benefits and homeless advocacy for the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center, stood under the awning of a Korean restaurant interviewing clients and dashing off emails to city officials. She said the people at the hotel who were being wrongfully denied accommodation included women with pulmonary disease, chronic asthma and seizure disorders.
“They are right now in flagrant violation of the law,” she said. “The mayor is focused on evicting people from Midtown and wealthy neighborhoods, and he cares about that over people’s safety.”
During the pandemic, the number of single adults in shelters climbed to a record 20,000 — partly because the virus and its economic fallout left many people homeless, and partly because the city offered hotel rooms that drew people off the streets and subways.
More than 120 homeless people have died of Covid-19 and more than 4,000 have been infected by the coronavirus, the city says. At least 7,000 homeless single adults have been vaccinated by the Homeless Services department, and an unknown number have been vaccinated through other programs.
One woman outside the hotel, Chantel Estrella, 31, who has asthma and experiences panic attacks and had also requested a reasonable accommodation, said the city was wasting everyone’s time. “The same effort they put in to move us out of here,” she said, “they should put that same effort to help us get an apartment.”
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