What next for NYC’s hotels and homeless shelters?

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NEW YORK — As the pandemic deepened and social distancing became impossible in the city’s crowded shelter system which helps 60,000 each night, city officials turned to hotels.

Left mostly vacant as the pandemic ravaged the region, 136 hotels have so far rented rooms for approximately 13,000 members of the city’s homeless population.

But there is a huge looming unanswered question: What happens when the pandemic passes?

“I hope they keep it,” said Derrick Johnson, who is currently occupying a room at the Kixby on 35th Street. A quick Google search shows a nightly rate of $174 per night, although the city is not saying how much it’s paying for the long-term lease of the whole building.

“A lot of people don’t want to go to shelters because they get robbed or fights break out of they’re scared, especially the elderly,” Johnson said.

Department of Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Louise Carroll recently said in theory, with the city’s hotel industry struggling, buying out hotels could be an affordable way to quickly increase homeless and affordable housing. However, a spokesman for HPD said there are currently no concrete plan to buy these hotels.

The recently passed city budget also slashed hundreds of million from social service agencies, making hotel acquisitions increasingly less likely.

Meanwhile, Housing Advocacy groups like VOCAL NY say the pandemic’s proven the hotel model can work and while shelters have seen deadly outbreaks.

“We’ve reached the point where we can never see congregate shelters as a safe place for people to go,” said Joseph Loonam with VOCAL. “We need to start exploring every option.”

VOCAL and other groups have long pushed for more Single Room Occupancy (SROs) solutions to homelessness. They argue in favor of getting people housing first, and solving the underlying issues such as drug dependency and employment second.

All a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio would say is any and all options are being considered to help address homelessness.

However, there may be other reasons the city has no current plans to keep up the expanded hotel sheltering after COVID: history.

“We learned in the 80s, it was a big problem just putting people into hotels,” said Ralph Da Costa-Nunez with the Institute for Children Poverty and Homelessness. “The space was available, the hotel market was way below occupancy then as it is now, but we had to stop it in the end because it became so notorious in so many situations.”

Da Costa-Nunez said there have been particularly tragic results with children including abuse and death. That history may explains why the hotels now being used for isolation during COVID have been generally for single men, although some have been rents for single women.

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