New York was in the midst of a record homelessness crisis even before the coronavirus hit. Some 60,000 people were filling municipal shelters across the city every night. Nearly a third of that number was living in dorm-style facilities for single adults, sharing bathrooms, dining areas and sleeping facilities.
“When Covid struck, we recognised very quickly this was a recipe for disaster,” said Jacqueline Simone, of Coalition for the Homeless, a New York charity. The problem was only going to get worse, they warned, as the economic crisis caused by the pandemic deepened.
They, and other advocacy groups, asked the city to find new shelters for the homeless to protect them from the coronavirus outbreak. Using hotels, which were lying empty across the city due to the pandemic, were seen as a perfect solution. Some 139 commercial hotels quickly stepped forward, according to city authorities — including a number of luxury hotels in Manhattan.
But in recent days, residents of some wealthier areas of New York where some of the hotels are located have complained about what they describe as anti-social behaviour and drug use by homeless people in their neighbourhoods.
In the Upper West Side, where the median house price is more than $1.8m, some residents have started a Facebook group to express their displeasure over the use of three high-end hotels in the area.
“Our community is terrified, angry and frightened,” one member of the ‘Upper West Siders For Safer Streets’ group told the New York Post. Another community group board member from the same area reportedly told the Post that “it feels like the 1970s. Everyone who can move out is moving out.”
Tabloids have seized upon the increased visibility of homeless people in the neighbourhood, running photographs of groups of men gathering accompanied by outraged headlines.
The response from these residents to a temporary solution to protect the homeless in a pandemic has prompted a backlash from charities and city officials.
“It’s incredibly disheartening and yet not necessarily surprising that people are reacting to poor people of colour with all of the same stigma and bias that has marked many of these debates for years,” said Ms Simone.
“One would hope the collective trauma of a pandemic, and the increasing economic uncertainty would give people more compassion. And yet we’re still seeing the same refrains of not wanting to have a certain person in your neighbourhood.”
The neighbourhood Facebook group’s description claims that “mentally ill chemical abusers” and “registered sex offenders have been moved to 3 hotels in the neighbourhood close to schools and playgrounds without any community vote or notice!” The Independent contacted members of the group for comment, but received no response.
The city told The Independent that “there are no residency-restricted sex offenders residing at these locations and all individuals residing at these locations are permitted to reside there under State law.”
Isaac McGinn, of New York’s department of social services, said authorities “provide shelter to New Yorkers experiencing homelessness regardless of background. This includes helping people rebuild their lives and grow through second chances as they get back on their feet.
He added: “New Yorkers experiencing homelessness are our neighbours – and the notion that they are not welcome in some neighbourhoods for any reason is an affront to basic decency. We don’t discriminate based on people’s previous experiences or backgrounds, and we will not create gated communities within our City – we extend a helping hand, no matter what.”
The row threatens to reignite a debate about how New York’s class divide played out during the pandemic. Mayor Bill de Blasio recently lashed out at wealthier New York residents who fled the city during the crisis as “fair weather friends”.
“This city is for New Yorkers, this is for people who live here, work here, fight to make this place better, fight through this crisis,” he said, blaming an uptick in crime in the city on “a perfect storm of temporary problems” caused by the coronavirus.
Ms Simone said the complaints over homelessness demonstrated the same lack of awareness on the part of wealthier residents to the way in which the coronavirus has impacted the city’s poorest.
“They are in these hotels because they deserve a safe place to stay as well. The rest of us are staying at home because that’s the public health guidance. What about people who don’t have a home?” she asked.
The use of hotels to temporarily house the homeless is more prevalent in New York than other cities because of the its “right to shelter” law, which legally obligates the city to provide shelter to anyone who asks for it. If shelters are full, they are placed in hotels. In 2018, the city of New York spent more than $350m on renting hotel rooms for shelters.
The scheme has been welcomed by hotel owners, especially since the onset of the pandemic, which has driven down hotel occupancy rates dramatically. Vijay Dandapani, the leader of New York’s Hotel Association, said the relocation of homeless people to hotels is a “short-term solution” that has saved lives and businesses.
“Almost every hotel wants to do this kind of business. This is short term. This is not permanent. The tabloids are focusing on entirely the wrong thing,” he told The Independent.
“Last year we had 69 million visitors to the city. Right now it is zero,” he says. “Nobody is anticipating many people doing any kind of travel for the next year. In the meantime you have hotels with property taxes to pay. The city has not given an inch in that regard.”
He said without hotels opening their doors there would have been “rampant infections in these homeless shelters, if not deaths”.
Mr Dandapani also noted the irony of residents’ complaints about a scheme that is helping hotels stay afloat when those same hotels help revive the area on the Upper West Side in question.
“There’s a lot of uproar about this hotel on the Upper West Side called the Lucerne. I’ve been 30 years in the New York City hotel market, and I can tell you that that area was a dump. It was impossible to go within a hundred feet of the Lucerne,” he said. “Whoever that owner is put in $20m plus to make it what it was. Did these people thank these owners for the gentrification that resulted in their property prices going up?”
While he added that he understood the concerns of residents, he called for pressure to be put on the police to provide more security in the area, rather than trying to force the homeless out.