The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) is re-evaluating its guidelines for sheltering older homeless adults and people with significant health problems that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19, who can under the current rules access private or semi-private rooms. More than 170 such residents being housed at a Radisson Hotel in lower Manhattan will need to move out by early next month.
Richard Kinard placed his hospital bags on the sidewalk and stopped to catch his breath near a Financial District Radisson Wednesday evening.
Kinard, who has a serious heart condition, had just returned to the hotel after a stay at New York Presbyterian Hospital several blocks away. The city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) placed him and more than 170 others in the Radisson as part of a plan to provide private or semi-private rooms to older homeless adults and people with significant health problems that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
“I walked from the hospital all the way back here,” Kinard said as he bent forward at the waist. “I think I’m going to have to go back to the hospital.”
The agreement to rent out rooms at the Radisson runs out early next month, meaning Kinard and the other residents will be moved into new accommodations. For at least some, that may mean placement in congregate shelters, despite the latest citywide surge in new COVID-19 cases. DHS officials had planned to change the pandemic-related guidelines that automatically allow people 70 and older to stay in private rooms and people over 66 in two-person rooms in commercial hotels to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Gothamist reported earlier this month. City officials also told the Coalition for the Homeless and attorneys from the Legal Aid Society that they want to change guidelines that give private rooms to people with specific medical conditions, including respiratory, kidney and heart ailments.
DHS officials have since temporarily paused the plan to overhaul the COVID protections as they prepare to empty the Radisson and assign residents to new locations.
“We are addressing the individual needs of clients on a case by case basis and we will move them to high quality placements that meet their needs,” said DHS spokesperson Julia Savel in an email.
The agency will still re-evaluate each person’s reasonable accommodation requests but will for now use current guidelines that lay out the specific room requirements for older adults and people with chronic medical conditions “linked to increased risk for severe illness due to COVID-19.” A person with coronary artery disease qualifies for a single room, for example; as does someone on kidney dialysis. People with multiple chronic conditions, like smokers who are considered moderately or severely obese, can qualify for a double room.
The private accommodations are still essential for protecting the health of New Yorkers vulnerable to COVID-19, said Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Jacquelyn Simone. At least 136 homeless New Yorkers have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to reports compiled weekly by DHS. The Coalition for the Homeless puts the number at 151.
“The pandemic is not over,” Simone said, adding that even vaccinated people are at risk if they have other serious health problems.
The agency created the medical condition rules in response to a class action lawsuit filed by Legal Aid on behalf of shelter residents with health and safety needs in October 2020.
Legal Aid attorney Josh Goldfein said DHS’ willingness to suspend the rule change is some good news for residents of the Radisson and other hotels, but their future still remains uncertain as DHS considers where to place them next.
“If they’re going to insist on reevaluating all these clients as they move them, then we’re going to monitor that process very closely to make sure they don’t send people to new placements that would be dangerous for them,” Goldfein said.
DHS began moving thousands of shelter residents into hotel rooms in the Spring of 2020 to halt the spread of COVID-19 before then-Mayor Bill de Blasio decided it was time to end the hotel stays in June 2021. In the ensuing weeks, DHS and nonprofit providers hurried the transfer of thousands of people from the so-called “de-densification” hotel rooms back into group shelters.
Legal Aid took the city to court to force a slower approach to the process after New Yorkers with mobility problems and disabilities were placed in shelters without working elevators or wheelchair accessible bathrooms, and people with severely compromised immune systems were forced to share bathrooms. The decision to clear most of the hotels also seemed to contradict guidance from the city’s own Health Department.
Goldfein said Legal Aid will intervene if people are placed in unsafe or unhealthy locations.
“Inevitably, someone is going to get moved into less than what they have, and what we saw last summer with the way they rushed through that process is that it left some vulnerable people in pretty dangerous situations,” he said.
It is unclear what will happen with the Radisson after current residents are forced to leave. A hotel operations manager refused to answer questions over the phone Thursday. The company did not respond to an email seeking more information.
In the meantime, residents say they worry about the next stop on what for many has been a series of relocations in a quest for permanent housing. New Yorkers with disabilities and medical conditions already face significant obstacles to securing permanent housing, as City Limits has reported.
Kinard said he has been moved out of two other hotels, one on the Upper East Side and another in Midtown. Prior to the pandemic, he was staying in a large group shelter on Canal Street, he said.
“I don’t want to go back to one of those,” he said.
Outside the facility Wednesday night, Alvin Smith, 63, said he heard he would be assigned to a shelter in Far Rockaway. Smith said he works as a truck driver for NYCHA, delivering supplies to housing complexes across the five boroughs, and has advanced-stage prostate cancer that has spread to other parts of his body.
He said he reports to a facility in Long Island City and hopes he will be placed close to his workplace because he experiences intense back pain and makes frequent bathroom visits.
“I’m learning to deal with it because I have to,” said Smith, who wore a NYCHA cap and identification card as he greeted other residents coming in and out of the building. “My doctor gave me a note saying that sending me to Far Rockaway would be too much for me.”
That note could help him when it comes to his next shelter placement. DHS’ interim guidelines for evaluating reasonable accommodations includes a review of “written clinical documentation from a treating clinician.”
In addition to his health problems, Smith said he finds himself in a predicament indicative of New York City’s affordable current housing crisis.
He earns too much at his job to qualify for rental assistance through the CityFHEPS voucher program and too little to afford an apartment amid skyrocketing rents, he said.
“I’m stuck in the middle,” Smith said. “But what am I going to do—stop working and stand out here all day?”