Today’s Read: Beneath the Sickened City

For more than a month, Mayor de Blasio and other officials have urged New York City residents to stay home. But even before the rapid economic fallout from the pandemic, record numbers of New Yorkers were already without homes. In addition to the more than 62,000 people who sleep in municipal shelters each night, thousands more bed down on the streets and in the subways. As businesses have closed and many organizations have reduced or paused their services, our unsheltered neighbors struggle to meet their immediate needs for bathrooms, showers, and food, all while contending with the risk of contracting a potentially deadly virus. Coalition for the Homeless has been regularly updating a list of resources that are still open (available here), but it is clear that significant service gaps remain.

Reuters reporter Maurice Tamman and photographer Lucas Jackson recently spent a night riding on the subways and speaking with the New Yorkers who have taken refuge in the transit system. The heartbreaking story shines a light on the desperation experienced by our most vulnerable neighbors, many of whom say they are afraid of entering the shelter system because they do not want to contract or transmit the virus in congregate shelters.

The Reuters story aligns with the experiences of unsheltered New Yorkers shared with Coalition for the Homeless staff and volunteers through our Crisis Intervention hotline (212-776-2177) and our nightly mobile soup kitchen, the Grand Central Food Program. It also reinforces the urgent need for the City to offer private hotel rooms to all homeless New Yorkers who are currently unsheltered and those in congregate shelters, as the Coalition has consistently advocated for weeks. The City’s delays and half-measures have a real human cost, and the Reuters article offers a glimpse into the struggles our homeless neighbors are facing.

As of Monday, 43 people from the city-run shelter system had died of COVID-19, according to the city’s Department of Social Services. The agency said 617 shelter residents and other homeless people – including a handful living on the streets – had tested positive for the virus so far.

According to New York’s Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group, about 62,000 people were living in city-run shelters in January, 60% more than 10 years ago.

Thousands more are living on the streets and the subways, says the group’s policy director, Giselle Routhier. She says the city hasn’t done enough. Her organization wants the city to pay for housing the homeless in some of the thousands of empty hotel rooms in the city.

On the northbound platform of the 6th Avenue line at the Rockefeller Center station, a man sits next to a shopping cart filled with plastic bottles and containers, a couple of mats and other detritus picked up along the way as he navigates life on the streets.

He’s trying to stay awake, and his head bobs up and down until I approach. He looks up gravely, suspiciously.

“Well, at this moment, yeah, I’m concerned about the sickness,” he says. “But you know what? I try my best to protect myself from this coronavirus.

“I got a nice jacket, and I have here this corona mask.”

He pulls a red-white-and-black scarf from around his neck and over his chin.

“So this way, you know that you won’t catch it. A lot of people are dying in the shelter, and that tells you the shelter is bad.”