Opinion: NYC must protect its homeless people from COVID: Backtracking on pandemic procedures puts lives at risk

Originally published in the New York Daily News

For the past three years, the city Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has taken steps to protect vulnerable homeless people from COVID-19. However, despite the ongoing threat that new viral variants continue to pose — especially to homeless seniors and those with compromised immunity, chronic conditions, and disabilities — DHS has abandoned many of the precautions that have been so instrumental in keeping shelter residents safe.

Starting in spring 2020, DHS moved more than 10,000 individuals from dormitory-style shelters — a population that then experienced an age-adjusted COVID-19 mortality rate 80% above the general population — into vacant hotel rooms. Seniors were first prioritized for single-occupancy rooms, followed by other homeless people living with certain cancers, suppressed immune systems, heart disease, and other serious conditions. Double-occupancy rooms were also provided for those at higher risk for severe illness.

Homeless individuals and the Coalition for the Homeless, represented by The Legal Aid Society, sued in October 2020 to secure single-occupancy rooms for all endangered by living in adult shelter dormitories. We advocated successfully for the inclusion of certain CDC conditions omitted in original DHS rules, and helped hundreds secure much safer shelter placements. While DHS has since returned many people to dormitory-style shelters, until recently the policy for seniors and those with serious conditions has continued to assure their safety.

To our astonishment though, last December, DHS quietly issued a policy that eliminates this automatic entitlement to safe shelter placement for those at greatest risk, replacing the CDC list with a new requirement that residents apply for such accommodations by providing documentation “sufficient” to show their “need.” In other words, the most vulnerable will now have to fight for a once guaranteed protection by submitting difficult-to-obtain documents which will then need to be evaluated by a city agency that believes the danger of the pandemic has passed.

Being over age 69 or having certain conditions (cancer, chronic lung, kidney, or liver disease, cystic fibrosis, dementia and other neurological diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, sickle cell or thalassemia, stroke or cerebrovascular disease, and tuberculosis) no longer automatically qualifies homeless New Yorkers for shelter placement in single- or double-occupancy rooms. DHS changed this policy despite objections we raised six months prior, and they implemented it immediately, only bothering to notify us, the court-appointed monitor of adult shelters in New York City, days later, on the Friday afternoon before Christmas Eve.

City officials, who worked diligently to protect shelter residents from COVID-19 just a couple of years ago, now espouse the preposterous position that those sleeping in shelter dorms just need to get vaccinated, wear masks, and apply for single rooms if they have the requisite documentation. They are not concerned about low rates of vaccination, mask wearing, and social distancing in shelters, and are simply anxious for “things to get back to normal” — whatever the cost may be to life and limb.

It should be lost on no one that the city’s public health emergency is still in place and the CDC continues to advise:

“Older adults are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19. Getting very sick means that older adults with COVID-19 might need hospitalization, intensive care, or a ventilator to help them breathe, or they might even die. The risk increases for people in their 50s and increases in 60s, 70s, 80s. People 85 and older are the most likely to get very sick. Other factors can also make you more likely to get severely ill with COVID-19 such as having certain underlying conditions.”

Current CDC guidance further reports that more than 81% of COVID-19 deaths occur above the age of 65, and the number of deaths within this population is 97 times higher than the number of deaths among those aged 18-29. It also highlights the heightened risks faced by members of racial and ethnic minority groups, as well as people with various disabilities — all of which are disproportionately common among those who are homeless.

And yet, DHS officials are refusing to withdraw or modify their dangerous new policy.

I have a 91-year-old mother whom I try to protect. I’m in my 60s and cannot take any more boosters because they’ve provoked serious and worsening auto-immune reactions, and I know too many people suffering from long COVID. I’ve also spent the past 40 years of my professional life helping homeless New Yorkers and fighting with city officials when they act irrationally and irresponsibly, as they are now. I join the chorus: Government officials should preserve the protections proven to save lives in this pandemic, not abandon those who are most vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19 despite the serious danger it continues to pose.