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As NYC Subway Closures Force Unhoused People into Packed Shelters, Advocates Demand Permanent Homes

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For the first time in its 115-year history, this month New York City began shutting down its subway system overnight. The unprecedented move has left unhoused people who rely on the trains for shelter suddenly with nowhere to go, and made them even more vulnerable as the coronavirus continues to spread. “The situation is concerning,” says emergency physician Dr. Kelly Doran, who has joined advocates in calling on New York to do more to protect unhoused people from infection. We also speak with Josh Dean, executive director of the homeless advocacy group Human.NYC.

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

AMY GOODMAN: For the first time in its more than 115-year history, New York City began shutting down its subway system overnight. The unprecedented move has left unhoused people who rely on the trains for shelter suddenly with nowhere to go, and made them even more vulnerable as the coronavirus continues to spread. New York police and outreach workers are staffing the end-of-the-line subway stations and bussing unhoused people to overcrowded shelters, where social distancing is impossible. Images of dozens of people sleeping on the floor of the 30th Street shelter in Manhattan, lining the stairs as they laid out, and a Wards Island shelter, after being taken off the subways, have sparked outrage. One man described his experience to Spectrum’s NY1.

UNHOUSED PERSON: Last night, I slept on the floor in the shelter, ’cause they said they had no beds. But they kick you out of here to go sleep on the floor.”

AMY GOODMAN: Many have refused to enter the shelters, saying it’s safer to sleep on the street. One person named Rick described the situation to the advocacy group Human.NYC outside the 30th Street shelter.

HUMAN.NYC: Where were you when the NYPD picked you up?

RICK: In the 7 train. Came from Queens.

HUMAN.NYC: From Queens? And they drove you here?

RICK: Yep. They didn’t drive me here, but they had an association of people that take you to places like here.

HUMAN.NYC: So where are you going to go now?

RICK: Now I’m going to sleep outside, again. So, I’m out here in New York City, and I have — I don’t want to go to the shelters, because this is what happens when I come to shelters so that people help me. There’s no help. There’s no help. There’s no help.

AMY GOODMAN: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said this month a thousand unhoused people will now be moved into double-occupancy hotel rooms, in addition to 2,500 unhoused people who have already been relocated to hotel rooms. But advocates say the move is too little, too late, and are calling on the mayor to take more bold action. De Blasio’s administration is against legislation that would permit thousands more people to live in unoccupied hotel rooms for the remainder of the coronavirus pandemic.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Dr. Kelly Doran is an emergency room physician, assistant professor of emergency medicine and population health at NYU’s School of Medicine. She co-authored a letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City officials about how to care for the city’s homeless population in the midst of the COVID19 outbreak.

And Josh Dean is with us, executive director of the homeless advocacy group Human.NYC. He’s been out on the city streets monitoring how subway closures are impacting homeless people.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! There was a very contentious City Council meeting this week. Dr. Kelly Doran, what are you demanding the city and the state do when it comes to the unhoused in New York City, especially as we see now, with the unprecedented closure of the city subway system, night after night, people being taken away?

DR. KELLY DORAN: Yeah. So, the situation is concerning. The city has done a lot since the pandemic started. So, I was a part of a group that, actually, over 500 physicians — physicians, nurses, social workers and other frontline healthcare professionals, that signed a letter that had been organized by the Health & Housing Consortium, which is a nonprofit organization here in New York City. And that letter gave recommendations and observations about what had been going on regarding our patients experiencing homelessness in New York.

That letter was sent over a month ago now, April 15, and had a number of recommendations around increasing communication with hospitals so that hospitals know how to better care for their patients who are experiencing homelessness, improving the discharge processes so that we have safe places where we can send people from the hospitals. The letter also had recommendations around moving homeless New Yorkers who are in congregate settings into private rooms, and recommendations against stopping street sweeps of people living in encampments or living on the streets, since those are against CDC recommendations.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Doran, could you discuss what other cities are doing, compared to New York City, what Mayor de Blasio and the administration here is or is not doing correctly?

DR. KELLY DORAN: Sure. I would say New York is unique in that we are the epicenter of the pandemic, and we also have a very large number of people who are experiencing homelessness compared to other places. We have done some things well in New York City. They have moved a number of people out of congregate shelters. They did set up isolation hotels fairly early for people who need to be isolated because they have symptoms of COVID.

Some things that we are not doing as well yet in New York City that other places are doing are, first, broadly testing in shelters in New York. In some places — for example, there have been studies that have come out of Boston, out of Atlanta, out of San Francisco now, including a study that was published by the CDC, where they have done widespread testing at homeless shelters. And what they found is that once you get even a small cluster of two or more people within the shelter who have COVID-19, when they test everybody in those shelters, 30% or more test positive for coronavirus. And the majority of them — the vast majority of them, actually — have not displayed symptoms. And so, in New York City, some of the shelters have begun doing some testing, but it’s still not widespread. And, you know, that is problematic, because we know that there are all of these asymptomatic cases. And so, the current screening to try to catch people who do have coronavirus, and isolate them in the shelters, is based on asking people about symptoms.

And then, the second thing that we’ve seen some places do better than others throughout the U.S. is moving people proactively into private settings, like hotel or motel rooms, to protect them. One of the places that’s done this best is Connecticut. Early on, before the peak of their pandemic, before really even the upswing of their pandemic, they moved people, a large number, the majority of people, out of their congregate shelters and into hotel and motel rooms. And they have not seen nearly the number of infections and deaths among people experiencing homelessness as we have here, for example.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to one unhoused man speaking to NY1 about the scene at an overcrowded homeless shelter.

UNHOUSED PERSON: Take a look inside. If you don’t catch corona or drop dead from disgust, I don’t know what will. And here I am. Unsanitary conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: During a press conference last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city’s subway closures and homeless outreach plan are working very well and have a, quote, “positive impact reducing homelessness in New York City.”

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: I want to keep updating you on the efforts to reach homeless New Yorkers related to this new plan to clean the subways each night and amplify the opportunities for our homeless outreach workers to reach homeless people and get them to safety and get them to a better life. Here are the results from last night: 370 homeless individuals were engaged, 213 accepted help — 178 went to shelter, 35 to hospitals. Again, I’ve said it enough times; I’m not going to repeat it. Unprecedented results, and the trend continues now for over a week, very, very consistently. And this, if we can sustain this, is going to have a very long-term and positive impact reducing homelessness in New York City.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Mayor Bill de Blasio. We’re also joined by Josh Dean, executive director of the homeless advocacy group Human.NYC. If you can respond to Mayor de Blasio, whether you think this is a successful policy? You are spending night after night outside.

JOSH DEAN: Yeah, I mean, this is absolutely not as successful as he’s making it out to be. The way that he is presenting the data is extremely misleading. We can start there. The people that he’s counting as accepting services is anyone who agrees simply to get into a van and be transported to the shelter, regardless of what happens when they actually arrive. And the folks that he’s counting as engaging are only the people with whom the outreach teams have a significant conversation with. So, because there’s such a heavy NYPD presence, and because the NYPD has consistently mistreated folks who are homeless, a lot of homeless folks will take one look at the NYPD and see that they’re with the outreach teams, want nothing to do with them. And those folks don’t get counted as engaged, despite being removed and sent to the streets.

There are also folks at the overwhelming majority of stations that are not end-of-the-line stations. And those folks, if they fall asleep on the platform, for example, they’re going to be asked to leave by NYPD, and there are not outreach teams there. The outreach teams are only deployed at the end-of-the-line stations.

So, both the numerator and the denominator in his, you know, statistics that he shares every day, where he says half of the people that we’re engaging are accepting services, are extremely misleading.

As we heard from the gentleman Rick, who we interviewed outside the 30th Street Men’s Shelter, a lot of folks are being transported to the shelters, and either because they’ve been there before or because they went inside and they saw how crowded it was, they left, for reasons that pertain to their safety, reasons that I think many of us who would be in the same situation would make the same decision.

So, what we actually ended up seeing, once some of the local journalists pressed the mayor hard enough, was that only a hundred people, of the folks that engage night after night, actually ended up staying at the shelter. And that, in and of itself, is concerning, given that the conditions that they were taking folks to, at least back a couple weeks ago when this was happening, are not necessarily safe places for folks to be right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Josh Dean, I wanted to ask you — this whole attempt by the city to move people into hotels now, a lot of people don’t know, who don’t know the history of New York City, know that back in the 1950s and '60s, the city had an entire network of what were called SROs, single-room occupancy hotels, specifically geared to low-income New Yorkers. And, of course, as the city got increasingly gentrified, all of those single-room occupancy hotels were closed. Now we're seeing the pressing need, not only because of the homeless population, but because of the pandemic, to once again house people, but now in much more expensive hotel rooms than the old SROs. What do you see as a long-term solution to dealing with this situation of increasing homelessness in the city?

JOSH DEAN: Yeah. So, I mean, in the short term, we absolutely need to be moving folks both out of the congregate shelters, off the streets and off the subways. We need to be offering all of those folks, you know, a private hotel room, where they’re able to socially distance, where they’re able to shelter in place. For the folks who are living on the streets, they haven’t been able to shower. They haven’t been able to wash their hands. So, a hotel room gives them the ability to do many of the things that housed New Yorkers have been doing for months now as we’ve been through this pandemic.

But hotels are not the long-term solution. We need to be moving these folks into permanent housing. For some folks, that will be supportive housing, which is housing with supportive services. And for some folks, they really just need their own apartment. And we have vouchers right now in the city, that those folks have, and the vouchers are not up to fair market rent, so a lot of people aren’t able to find units that they can afford even with the voucher. And they also face rampant discrimination from landlords who don’t want to be renting to voucher holders. So, a combination of increasing the vouchers to fair market rent and increasing our ability to fight back against landlord discrimination will be really pivotal in permanently housing folks, because hotels, you know, are really important, and we need to be doing that right now, but they’re not the long-term solution.

AMY GOODMAN: Josh, we just have 30 seconds. How many unhoused people are there, would you estimate, in New York City? And how many do you believe are positive for COVID?

JOSH DEAN: Unhoused folks in New York City, you know, the numbers indicate that number is around 80,000, and that includes folks who are living in shelters or living on the streets. Estimate of folks who have COVID, you know, the data suggests that number is at 976 right now. But I think with what Dr. Doran had talked about with regards to asymptomatic spread, that number has got to be in the thousands, and we’re just not aware of it right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Josh Dean, executive director of the homeless advocacy group Human.NYC. And thanks to Dr. Kelly Doran, an emergency physician, assistant professor of emergency medicine and population health at NYU’s School of Medicine. She co-authored a letter to the governor of New York and New York City about how to care for the city’s homeless population in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, and we’ll link to that letter.

This is Democracy Now!, as we turn to the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, Reverend William Barber. Stay with us.

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