Inside the Wards Island shelter, ventilation is poor and the beds are uncomfortably close together.
Photo: Samuel Irvin
When the M35 pulled up at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue last Thursday, Mike Colón was among the crowd of around 30 who boarded the already crowded bus to Wards Island. It was 9:25 p.m., and the only other free route to the island was a walk over the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, but it would take a while, and he – like most of the others there – had to get home by the time. curfew at the top of the hour. Colón, 33, has been living at the HELP USA Meyer mental health shelter since 2018, a Course by Maria Cuomo Cole, the sister of the future former governor, mainly for people in need of psychiatric assistance. It’s right across a salt marsh from a football field named after Wall Street investor Carl Icahn, the 124th in the world the richest no one.
“This is the most depressing place you can be,” Colón said.
The bus ride took just over ten minutes. Maybe half of the runners wore masks. Colón, who was returning from work, is required, as a condition of his parole, to remain in the shelter. One of his concerns, he said, is the lack of ventilation there. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the virus ravaged HELP Meyer, killing a handful of residents and rendering many more. “It was bad,” he said. “There was no ventilation. The coronavirus was happening. It was spreading quickly, ”Colón said.
“Several people died! Crazy people have died, ”said Danul Williams, a friend of Colón’s who was sitting nearby. Williams lives in Clarke Thomas, one of three other shelters on Wards Island run by HELP USA where, he said, the situation is similar. “No ventilation – none of that crap. All they did was maybe move a bed.
Colón is not vaccinated – “too new,” he said of the vaccine – but wears a surgical mask that slides down his nose as he speaks. Inside the sleeping areas of the Meyer Shelter, there is no filtration or air conditioning system. Some windows are hermetically closed. It can get stuffy there during the summer. About sixty people have beds spaced a few meters apart. “There is no ventilation going on,” he said. “It’s horrible.”
New York City is moving around 8,000 homeless residents from hotels, where they have been temporarily accommodated to slow the spread of the virus, to the collective shelter system. As the movement has been slowed down by courts, interviews with residents, lawyers, health experts and activists – along with videos and photos I have seen – show that the facilities the city deemed so inadequate in the early days of the pandemic have seen little, if any, improvements since. What paved the way for this sudden decline was a recent decision by the Cuomo administration to relax ventilation requirements at sites where airflow is apparently minimal.
The homeless population is among the least vaccinated in the city. It is not known how many people in the system have been vaccinated, but DHS has vaccinated about 20 percent of clients in July, and more may have been shot outside the shelters. Experts say the rush to get them back to shelters, combined with the lack of air quality improvements, is likely to make people sick and kill people. “This is a slow train crash,” said Joshua Goldfein, lawyer for the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project. “It is just unwise for public health reasons, at the very least, to send people to sites where there is likely to be super broadcast events that will shine in the community.”
The shelter situation in New York City has been one of the most difficult and overwhelming fault lines of class, race and inequality that have been laid bare during the pandemic. The city partnered with more than 60 hotels last April on a temporary program to move homeless residents from large shared spaces to their own rooms. But residents of neighborhoods like the Upper West Side have complained of an increase in public urination, fighting and people sleeping on the streets in areas where public homelessness protests have been rare.
A few partially open windows provide some fresh air.
Photo: Samuel Irvin
While the hotel program was underway, New York State was planning to make shelter systems more secure. In September, the National Office for Temporary Assistance and People with Disabilities published a 13-page guide letter stating that shelters housing 25 or more people “must include air filtration and ventilation procedures in their plans that maximize the health and safety of residents, especially those who are most vulnerable and at risk of serious illness due to COVID-19 ”. Among the assignments were the installation of air filters, the repair of central air systems and even the maintenance of a humidity level between 40 and 60%.
“The September advice was important,” Jacquelyn Simone, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, told Curbed. “We had the impression between September and spring, when DHS began to phase out the use of its hotels and return people to assembly shelters, that it would operate under the direction of OTDA.” The Coalition had learned that the New York City Department of Homelessness had submitted two ventilation plans to the state for approval, but none were made available. (The city and state have not commented on plans proposed by the city. HELP USA did not return voicemail messages requesting comment, and a request to speak with a spokesperson was directed to a line that went unanswered.)
Everything changed this summer, except the buildings themselves. Last June, a New York appeals court dismissed a lawsuit to keep a group of homeless men in Lucerne, essentially paving the way to the end of the hotel program. Soon after, the Cuomo administration quietly Posted updated ventilation guidelines. Guidelines that shelters “must” include ventilation procedures have been relaxed to say they “should”. Details on filtration levels and humidity are gone. In total, the new guidelines weighed six pages, less than half the length of the rules nine months earlier. Last week, a judge delayed the return to shelters of some residents with disabilities for up to two weeks.
Meanwhile, the city has done little to improve the air quality in the shelters. A spreadsheet of improvements made by DHS during the pandemic showed an improvement in ventilation for a family shelter, where people are housed in discrete units, but showed no such improvement in bringing shelters together for single adults, said Simone. While this does not rule out that a private owner may have improved ventilation, the Coalition was not aware of any such change, she added.
If there was a reason behind the looser ventilation guidelines released in September, it’s unclear what it was. “The June guidelines were released after the governor lifted COVID-19 restrictions,” OTDA spokesperson Anthony Farmer said in a statement. “The guidelines have been reviewed by the state Department of Health and are in accordance with CDC guidelines.” (DHS did not respond to questions about the ventilation and condition of the Wards Island shelters, except for a standard quote expressing appreciation for “the Court’s continued scrutiny.”)
“My concern is everything we knew about HVAC systems and the traffic was in a pre-Delta world. Now we have this new variant which we know is much more transmissible, ”said Dr. Kelly M. Doran, an emergency physician at NYU Langone who focuses his research on homelessness. “These collective shelters are riskier than other environments, and this is one of the reasons why, for example, masks are always recommended.”
New York City now has an average of around 1,600 new cases of the virus per day, eight times more than the low at the end of June, according to city data. Not only could this lead to the deaths of more people in the shelters, but it could reignite the spread of the virus, again, throughout the city. “Sometimes people think it’s a closed system, like these people are just in shelters,” Dr Doran said. “The same people in shelters come in and out, they take public transport, they go to schools, they go to workplaces. And then, of course, you have all the staff.
“There have been cases, certainly in the last few weeks, where someone with COVID was sleeping in a dorm with many other people,” Simone said. When people are exposed, DHS typically moves them to quarantine facilities, she added.
Clarke Thomas, the facility that HELP USA is functioning in a $ 45 million deal, was described by seven current and former residents as one of New York City’s worst havens – a place where the designer drug known as K2 was rampant, violence was common and the the roof has leaked. Residents said there were multi-day stretches without hot water and there were no medical facilities on site. Samuel Irvin, a Clarke Thomas resident since October, said on Sunday that they served bread with jelly as a meal. At night, the three-story building at the end of Hell Gate Circle appears to have the sleeping area windows open only a few inches.
Photos and videos of the interior seen by Curbed paint a picture where there is little social distancing, masking or ventilation. In a photo taken Sunday evening, a group of three men in wheelchairs on the first floor crowd around four windows, one of which is fully closed. The men are at the end of two rows of five beds, and two men are resting in neighboring beds a few feet apart. Another resident uploaded video showing that a fan near a third floor bay window had been removed. Images sent by a third party showed a toilet stained with excrement, which he said had been in that condition all day.
“Ventilation? What ventilation?” said Irvin, 60, a disabled veteran of the Navy who transferred from a Howard Johnson hotel in Queens. “There are air conditioners in the cafeteria, in the adviser’s office and in the back of the kitchen. “But where we sleep there is nothing. We have to open the window and turn on the fan. We are burning here.”