NYC's "homeless hotel" experiment coming to an end

New York City was one of several large, urban centers that struggled with what to do about their homeless population when the novel coronavirus began tearing through their sidewalk encampments. And like some others, the Big Apple decided to move many of the homeless into hotel rooms. To say that this was a decision that wasn’t thought through very well is probably something of an understatement with the benefit of hindsight. Be that as it may, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was reluctant to make that move at first, went ahead with the plan. But now that summer is approaching its end and the numbers of new cases have flattened out at a much lower level, he’s getting ready to pull the plug on the plan after local residents began complaining about it. (Politico)

The city will begin moving people experiencing homelessness who were given hotel rooms to protect against the coronavirus out of the hotels and back into shelters, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday.

He did not give a timeline for the move, but said the city would back away from the hotel program after complaints from residents in some neighborhoods about quality of life problems they blame on the facilities.

“As the health situation has continued to improve, we’re going to start the process of figuring out where we can get homeless individuals back into safe shelter facilities, and reduce the reliance on hotels,” de Blasio told reporters. “Hotels [are] certainly not where we want to be in general, and we’re going to start that process immediately.”

New York’s idea to move the homeless into hotel rooms worked out about as well as it did in Los Angeles and San Francisco, among other cities. That is to say… not well at all. To be fair, it’s almost forgivable how some people could have looked at this proposal initially and thought it might have some merit. After all, getting the homeless off the streets has always been a goal for municipal governments and they would be protected from the elements in a hotel. Also, the tourism industry took a total nose dive when the pandemic hit and the hotels were losing money hand over fist with most of their rooms sitting empty. This plan sounded like it would benefit both the homeless and the hotels, so it’s a win-win, right?

But the problems that emerged should have been obvious from the beginning. The people who were moved in quickly trashed the hotels, in some cases causing more damage than the amount of money the city was paying them could cover. Also, the homeless weren’t receiving any sort of treatment for addiction or mental illness, both of which are huge problems in that community. Residents near the hotels began complaining about people urinating or defecating in the streets and openly using drugs in the alleys around the neighborhood. In other words, they brought all of the problems associated with homeless encampments with them to the neighborhoods around the hotels.

This “solution” was implemented in Midtown, Hell’s Kitchen, and the Upper West Side. These are all neighborhoods that have become considerably more upscale in recent decades and the people living there were not anticipating seeing their neighborhoods morphing into Skid Row while they waited out the pandemic.

There’s one more dirty little secret hiding beneath the surface of the Mayor’s announcement this week. Hizzoner is talking about “relocating” the homeless from the hotels to “shelters.” But the fact is that there aren’t anywhere near enough rooms in qualified shelters for all the homeless and many of them refuse to stay in the shelters even if you take them there. That’s why they were all on the street before being moved into those nice hotel rooms. The Mayor has no way to move them all into shelters, so they’re just going to wind up back in their old encampments on the sidewalks and in the parks. A ton of money will have been flushed into this program and once it’s finished, basically nothing will have changed.

What a large percentage of the homeless population needs is far more than just a roof over their heads and a working bathroom. (Though that need those things too, of course.) They need substance abuse counseling and support. They need mental healthcare professionals. And the ones capable of holding down a job need vocational support and education. All of that costs money, and none of it was provided for the people they temporarily shuffled off to the hotels. And once they’re back out on the streets, New York City still won’t have any way to provide those services to them there, either.