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.