Today’s Read: COVID-19 Causes a Sharp Rise in Deaths of NYC Homeless

The annual report compiled by City agencies detailing the number of New Yorkers who died while homeless is a tragic reminder of how far we have to go in ensuring that no person lives or dies without the basic stability of permanent housing. This year’s report, which covers fiscal year 2020 (July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020), summarizes in stark terms what we all have known for months: The pandemic has taken an unfathomable toll on homeless New Yorkers.

The grim report shows that an all-time record 613 people experiencing homelessness died during fiscal year 2020, a 52-percent increase over the prior year. While drug-related deaths remained the leading cause, claiming 131 lives, there were also 120 confirmed or probable COVID-19 deaths during the reporting period. Furthermore, the increase in the total number of deaths last year is not fully attributable to those directly designated as COVID-19, which adds to the growing evidence that the pandemic has contributed to excess deaths. For example, if someone was unable to access medical care quickly due to the pandemic, they might have died from a condition that otherwise would have been treated. There were likely also people who had COVID-19 but whose death was attributed to a different cause, given the lack of testing capacity and the not fully understood ways in which the virus exacerbates underlying conditions.

Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier explained:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on homeless New Yorkers and laid bare the dangers of subsisting without a home of one’s own. Heartbreakingly, the total number of New Yorkers who died homeless nearly tripled in just five years. The number of people who actually died due to the pandemic is undoubtedly greater than the official count of COVID-19 related deaths. This is underscored by the fact that the number of reported deaths due to causes other than COVID-19 also reached a record high in fiscal year 2020. We renew our plea: All homeless individuals should be offered a single-occupancy hotel room for the duration of the pandemic so that they can protect themselves from the increasingly infectious strains of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Moreover, the City, State, and Federal governments must recognize that housing is health care and provide the funding needed to reverse this devastating toll. As this evidence so starkly shows, lives are at stake.”

Although this report only covers the first few months of the pandemic, the virus continues to spread throughout the population. The Coalition continues to advocate for urgently needed policies to protect homeless New Yorkers during the pandemic, and to create more permanent housing to prevent, reduce, and end homelessness. We have also worked alongside The Legal Aid Society and Jenner & Block LLP via litigation against the City to press for the provision of single-occupancy hotel rooms to assure access to safe shelter for homeless single adults that is free of significant health risks from aerosol transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. With infection rates at alarming levels throughout the city and news of more infectious strains of the virus, we will redouble our advocacy to ensure that homeless New Yorkers can access safe shelters and move into permanent housing as quickly as possible.

Cindy Rodriguez wrote about the grim report for Gothamist:

The data on deaths is part of a report compiled by the city’s Department of Social Services with the help of the Department of Health and the city’s Medical Examiner. A 2006 city law requires the report to be submitted to the city council annually. 

In the last 10 years alone, the number of homeless deaths has more than tripled. Overall, middle-aged men die the most. In any given year, more typical health problems such as heart failure, diabetes and cancer plague the homeless population. But this year, a new and much more deadly threat— COVID-19—caused the most damage.  

Giselle Routhier, Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless, called the death toll devastating and said that even though the city has “de-densified” parts of the system by utilizing hotels, some people remain in congregate shelters.

“We need the city to be using hotel rooms specifically for those people and for folks who are on the streets as well—direct placements into single occupancy hotel rooms—as we’re seeing the second wave hit,” Routhier said.

COVID-19 Causes A Sharp Rise In Deaths Of NYC Homeless

Some 631 homeless New Yorkers died between July of 2019 and June of 2020, a 52% increase compared to the prior fiscal year, according to data released Tuesday by the de Blasio administration, a grim indicator of the effect of the coronavirus on people lacking permanent housing. 

The largest number of those deaths occurred between April and June, when COVID-19 first began to bear down on the city. As infections grew and communities of color were devastated by the pandemic, so was the city’s vast shelter system, where single adults typically share a room with several others. 

Kids Bring Hope in the New Year

Through all the chaos of the last year, we’ve noticed some unlikely heroes stepping up to support their neighbors in need: New York City’s kids. Here are just a few of the ways children from across the city have helped in the last year.

There’s Scott Hechinger’s 5-year-old son, whose deep compassion and awareness of the homelessness crisis compelled his father to post this Twitter thread. Scott’s son couldn’t understand why so many people in one of America’s wealthiest cities are hungry and homeless (neither can we). He was inspired by  other stories of kids helping the Coalition and wanted to see what he could do.

Our Executive Director Dave Giffen and his 7-year-old son hopped on a Zoom call with Scott and his son to talk about what kids can do to help people in need.

Then there’s Bond, also 5, whose father approached us in early December to tell us about a creative fundraiser his son started to benefit the Coalition’s Holiday Toy Drive . Bond, who has been practicing meditation since he was just over a year old, learned that the nearly 19,000 children spending the holidays in shelters aren’t as fortunate as he is on Christmas morning. “That made him sad,” his father wrote in an Instagram post.

Bond decided to meditate live on Instagram for 20 minutes — longer than he’d ever gone — and invite his friends. By the end of the year, this impressive group of kids had raised more than $30,000 to provide toys for homeless children. We were overwhelmed with gratitude.

In case you needed more evidence that New York City has some of the most creative young people on the planet, we received this video from Olivia, who sold homemade bracelets to raise donations for our Toy Drive.

To cap off the year, we also saw drives from schools around the city, including The Pine Street School, The Brearley School, and SAR Academy of Riverdale. Students collected masks, hand sanitizer, toys, and more for homeless New Yorkers.

We are so heartened by the compassion and understanding these kids have shown, and how engaged they are in learning about the solutions to homelessness. If the next generation understands that it is possible to eradicate modern homelessness, we believe they can help make it happen.

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