The Homeless-to-Hotels Program Is Ending, and Nobody’s Ready

Photo: Steven Ferdman / Getty Images

In April 2020, the owners of the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Long Island City turned to Blasio’s administration for a lifeline. His selling points before the pandemic were no longer relevant. Who cares if the Javits Center is 30 minutes away? What were his lounge wall art or free breakfast buffets used for? But there was something the city wanted: a private space. For $ 110 a room, or about half of the old rate, the city would take its 152 units and house homeless New Yorkers there in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus. Otherwise, the owners of the Fairfield should have made ends meet by renting about 15 rooms on a good night’s sleep.

“For a hotel to be 10-15% occupied for a month, they might be able to get by,” Edward Cardenas, who heads regional sales and marketing for the management company, told Curbed. hotel, Chase Hotel Group. “For two, three, four months?” Yes, we were going to go bankrupt. Basically, we had no choice. It was a financial decision that we had to make because there was no other alternative. As of last week, 139 hotels had registered.

As the pandemic eases and the number of cases hits an all-time high, the city and its hoteliers are determining how exactly and whether to disentangle from each other. The city’s lifeline, now in its 14th month, may be about to end, and while this type of resolution normally bodes good news and a return to normalcy, homeowners hotels and homeless advocates say it’s happening too fast. “We will very soon begin the process of returning people to shelters, where we can provide them the most support,” said Mayor de Blasio. mentionned on Brian Lehrer’s WNYC show recently. “It was never meant to be a long-term thing. It won’t be a long-term thing – you will soon start to see these changes. However, for hoteliers, international tourism is still effectively zero. Businessmen prefer to use Zoom. The conference circuit is probably years away from returning to full force. Homeowners also say market realities force them to make expensive, top-to-bottom, multi-month renovations to where the homeless used to live, to remove any stigma that might put off future guests. Many now envision a future without government support, customers and potentially millions of new home improvement debt.

The hotel program was just one of the city’s emergency responses to tackle COVID-19, but it stood out for its ability to agitate people. With homeless people staying in hotels like Lucerne – located halfway between Sarabeth’s and the American Museum of Natural History – it has widened the gap between rich and needy New Yorkers even further. New York To post dedicated covers to blame “homeless hotels” for increasing crime in neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, even as the virus has killed a disproportionate number of poor, non-white residents. By this day, passers-by can usually tell when a Hilton was turned into a shelter: there are police vans parked outside, although homeless advocates say properties tend to have less. violent incidents as shelters.

“You can’t just flip the switch and greet tourists,” said Vijay Dandapani, president and CEO of the New York Hotel Association. “It’s a very short-lived affair. Sometimes a snowstorm in the past would have shut down our business 100 percent. September 11 did. Certainly the financial crisis, in a different way, did. But nothing was as dramatic as this.

For decades, New York City has relied on hotels as an overflow space for homeless residents. Even before a landmark 1981 decision establishes the right to refuge in New York, the homeless of Bowery are sometimes sent to hotels after being treated by the city. Before the pandemic hit, the city housed 3,500 people in hotel rooms that would otherwise be on the streets. Shortly after Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency in March 2020, Blasio’s administration suspended its supply rules, and on April 15, he developed a agreement with the city’s hospitality industry to provide rooms for an additional 9,500 people, paying $ 300 million. In April of this year, approximately one in four people who depended on the city for accommodation stayed in hotels, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, which publishes data on the city. “It’s an incredibly valuable resource that provides a safe private space for people who don’t have a safe private space, slows the spread of the virus, and helps people protect themselves,” said Giselle Routhier, director of policy at Coalition.

For some, staying in a hotel during the pandemic has been a lifeline. “Being at a hotel is much better. I can sleep on my own. It’s a blessing, ”said Ofelia Ramirez, who stayed in a room at the Hilton Garden Inn on 35th Street in Manhattan. Ramirez, 59, has been beaten up by other residents of shelters like Casa de Cariño in the Bronx, she said, but says she loves the women at the hotel. Still, life there can be daunting. Ramirez, who is relying on a walker with lifelong spina bifida and part of his foot will be amputated next month, said the elevator recently broke – an incident another resident has confirmed. A young woman died in her bedroom and no one from the Homelessness Services Department explained why, Ramirez said. And there were fewer services, such as on-site nurses and human resources, available than in collective shelters, she added. (A DHS spokesperson denied there were fewer services available but confirmed that a woman died there in April from “natural causes” unrelated to COVID-19. A Hilton spokeswoman declined to comment, and the general manager of the property, Frank Cortese, abruptly canceled a call with me and told me that he was “not able to comment”.)

A lawsuit filed by homeless people fighting for their right to stay in Lucerne has been fired as moot by an appeals court, effectively evicting the residents, because the men who brought the lawsuit have already moved – completely bypassing the lawsuit’s core claims. The city sent a letter residents telling them to prepare to return to group shelters. And while the letter appears intended to ease a transition, it appears to have created more confusion, sparking rumors around shelters like the Hilton Garden Inn that evictions are imminent, Ramirez said.

When will the program actually be interrupted? A spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services said there were no plans that could be shared publicly. Routhier, however, feels the urgent need for a timetable: “The city must have a specific plan in place to start returning people to the assembly shelters, and that plan must be approved by the state,” adding that she did not see this plan. Mass shelters, she added, still need to be equipped with better ventilation systems to protect the homeless from the spread of the virus. But Dandapani, the boss of the hotel group, said the city can end the entire program with six days’ notice. And many hotels, like the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Cardenas, have contracts that end on June 30 – and no clear idea what the city is going to do next.

Cardenas says he hopes the city will end the program in phases. While he’s been successful in keeping the hotel afloat – and avoiding layoffs – he says returning to a conventional hotel is not without problems. “The word got out: ‘Your hotel is homeless,’” Cardenas said. “So, to attract the business, we have to do a complete renovation of the rooms. I’m talking about – it has to be completely emptied. Since the cost of labor and materials has risen sharply, he estimates it could take four months and $ 4 million, all funded by loans that would add to the company’s debt load. “And by the time it’s done, we’re looking at November, December. Then we move on to the low season. The best case scenario, he said, would be if the city scaled back its program over time, allowing hotels to keep some homeless residents – and the public money that funds their stays – until the end of the season. year round while renovating a few floors at a time. “We’re just trying to survive,” he said. “If that doesn’t last until the end of the year, it will be a difficult remainder of 2021.”

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