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Housing Not Shelters: Amid Pandemic, Homeless New Yorkers Demand Refuge in Vacant Apartments, Hotels

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More than 100 million people across the United States have been ordered to stay home to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but what about people who are homeless? Tens of thousands of homeless people in New York City shelters and on the streets have been left with no way to safely shelter in place. We hear from people who are homeless, and speak with Kiana Davis, advocate and policy analyst with the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, New York City. Here in New York state, the death toll has surpassed 1,000 with more than 60,000 cases. Of course, that is a serious underestimate because of the lack of access we have to tests. In New York City, which accounts for more than half the state’s cases, sirens can be heard wailing around the clock as New York scrambles to treat the growing number of critically ill patients.

But as New Yorkers and people around the world are told to stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus, tens of thousands of unhoused people here in New York City shelters and on the streets have been left with no way to safely shelter in place. The virus is also spreading through the city’s shelter system, where at least 70 cases have been reported in 45 shelters. Two people have died. The news outlet The City reported Saturday four unsheltered, unhoused people have also tested positive for COVID; three are still hospitalized. Advocates for the unhoused say these numbers will get far worse if the city continues to fail to provide adequate bathrooms, public sanitation stations, proper shelter for homeless New Yorkers living on the street.

Democracy Now! reached Charmel Lucas, a member of Picture the Homeless who has lived in the shelter system for five years, reached her on the phone last week. She expressed concerns about unsheltered homeless people left on the streets amidst this pandemic.

CHARMEL LUCAS: The bathroom situation, now, Starbucks was a big hub for homeless people to use the bathroom. So how are they washing their hands? The mall is closed, no bathroom. And there’s a 24-hour bread and butter, but they’re not letting people use the bathroom. So how is people supposed to wash their hands?

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, those living in New York’s packed shelter system say it’s too crowded to allow for safe social distancing. This is Bernard Ward, who was living in a New York City shelter in downtown Brooklyn ’til last week. We reached him on the phone.

BERNARD WARD: When the virus first hit and people — I was requesting for gloves and masks, and they said that we are not able to — it wasn’t in their budget. I said, “Wasn’t in your budget?” That didn’t make no sense. I mean, this is an epidemic. The maintenance personnel wasn’t there. I’ve been cleaning up the dining area, the hallways, my dormitory myself. It was 20 or more people in the dining area closed up together with no protection, serving meals that wasn’t — you know, they didn’t cover it. You know, it was ridiculous.

AMY GOODMAN: All the while, New York City is continuing to break up homeless encampments, despite the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday residents who don’t adhere to strict social distancing rules can be fined up to $500 — a rule that advocates warn will disproportionately affect unhoused people.

For more, we’re going to Kiana Davis, advocate, policy analyst with Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center.

Kiana, welcome to Democracy Now! Lay out the issue here in New York, and then we’ll go to L.A. and to Oakland.

KIANA DAVIS: Sure. Here in New York, what we’re really seeing is the city continue to disregard an deprioritize the needs of people both living on the street and in our shelter system. We know that there are enough vacant spaces in the city, both hotels and apartments, where the city could be housing people.

We know that folks on the street are continuing to be heavily policed. The city relies on the police force to manage and monitor homeless folks, instead of offering actual services in the way of housing or bathrooms or hand-washing stations or even basic supplies and necessities for people on the street. We’ve seen the police continue to conduct street sweeps of homeless folks who are on the street, despite CDC and the HUD guidance advising cities that that is not what they should be doing, that that is a risk to further spreading coronavirus and COVID-19.

We know, as you heard from Bernard, that in the shelters there are inadequate cleanings happening, lack of basic sanitation supplies, a lack of ability to social distance. And as you mentioned, just this weekend, the mayor announced that they’re now going to start fining people for not complying with social distancing rules, when people who do not have a home, who are on the street or in congregate settings, do not have a way to socially distance.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what your demands are now. And how many people are we talking about in New York City?

KIANA DAVIS: Yes. So, we know that there are over 17,000 adults in shelter, many of whom — single adults in shelter, many of whom are in these congregate setting, dorm-like shelter spaces, and about 3,500 — a little more than 3,500 folks on the street, as an estimate. So, our demands, what we are prioritizing at this point, is that the city should be using vacant hotels to ensure the safety for people who are on the street and who are in the shelter. We know that there are over 100,000 vacant hotel units right now in New York City that they — that could be being used to offer isolation spaces to people who want that. We also, of course, always want to tie it to a longer demand to house the homeless people, homeless folks in our city now. Everyone who needs a home should be able to access one. We know that there is a huge vacant housing stock in our city that could be being offered to folks on the street and in shelters, which would allow folks to, of course, socially distance, self-quarantine, take care of themselves. We know that housing is healthcare.

We also are demanding increased services for people on the street and in shelters, so some of the things I mentioned, like increasing hand-washing stations, having more access to drop-in spaces for homeless folks, increasing distancing in shelters and cleaning in shelters.

Another important demand is, of course, around policing. We believe that there should not be ongoing policing that targets homeless people, such as the street sweeps, such as fining people who are — for socially distancing, when we know that that will inevitably directly target homeless folks who are on the street, who do not have a place to go.

And the last one is access to food and access to healthcare. About a third of food pantries in New York City have had to shutter their doors as a result of COVID-19. We want to make sure that people have access to food that is both accessible and meets their needs and accommodates whatever dietary restrictions, as well as access to healthcare for all.

AMY GOODMAN: Kiana, we’re going to certainly continue to cover this issue. I want to thank you for being with us, Kiana Davis of the Urban Justice Center here in New York City. We’re going to move on to Oakland and L.A., but I want to end with this New York comment of Charmel Lucas, who’s been in the city’s shelter system for five years.

CHARMEL LUCAS: My message is, as always, housing not shelters. Housing not shelters. And that’s one of Picture the Homeless’ biggest messages: housing, not a shelter. So, now you done have all these people in these shelters all these years, and now you’ve got a pandemic, and they don’t have their own apartment to lock down, cook food. So, what is the city going to do differently after we get through this? What are they going to do differently for people that’s in the shelter? Are you going to get them into the apartments faster, before another pandemic happens? What are they all going to do? What is the plan for the next time? What’s the plan?

AMY GOODMAN: “What’s the plan?” asks Charmel Lucas, who’s been in the New York City shelter system for five years. Special thanks to Democracy Now!’s Libby Rainey.

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