City Council and de Blasio battle over hotels for the homeless

There are concerns about the cost of providing homeless adults with their own rooms – and whether it’s even helpful.

The New York City Council could hold an emergency vote as early as Tuesday on a bill that would allow all homeless single adults to stay in hotel rooms alone.

The New York City Council could hold an emergency vote as early as Tuesday on a bill that would allow all homeless single adults to stay in hotel rooms alone. Pavel L Photography and Video/Shutterstock

The debate over whether to place New York City’s street homeless into shelters or directly into hotel rooms appears to be coming to a head. The New York City Council could hold an emergency vote as early as Tuesday on a bill that would allow all homeless single adults to stay in hotel rooms alone. The city currently has two people sharing the same room.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed for shelter residents to be let into hotels and asked outreach workers to encourage the rest of the population to enter shelters. But many members of the City Council and advocates for the homeless have advocated for the city to fast-track the process so that all homeless people can directly access hotel rooms to self-isolate.

City officials have mostly focused on the cost and capacity of such an undertaking. The Federal Emergency Management Agency conditionally approved the use of federal money for the city’s plan to move shelter residents to hotels in late March. The agency will not cover “substantial medical care and social and behavioral health services,” according to a letter sent to the city by FEMA on May 15, which administration officials said hampers its ability to support homeless people with mental health or substance abuse disorders placed in rooms.

The letter also states that the federal agency would not cover isolated housing for homeless people who are housed in shelters with private rooms but shared bathrooms or kitchens.

City Hall said the cost of the proposed program would be nearly $500 million over the course of six months, anticipating additional costs for transportation and logistical challenges. But City Councilman Stephen Levin, the bill’s sponsor, pointed to the fact that FEMA has pledged to cover 75% of costs incurred by the program. In California, FEMA committed to covering the same percentage of costs for a similar housing program that includes meals, security and custodial services.

Reactions from advocates and providers have been somewhat divided. Advocacy groups, including Coalition for the Homeless, Human.nyc and VOCAL-NY, have long supported the bill as a way to allow homeless people to maintain a safe distance from one another in a way that isn’t possible in congregate settings. They have pointed to other recent failures in the city’s approach during the coronavirus pandemic, as few street homeless people have opted to stay in shelters in the aftermath of overnight subway closures, often out of fear of catching the coronavirus. But one homeless services nonprofit, Bowery Residents’ Committee, has said the bill needs tweaking.

“We also know from experience and research of the very real dangers of isolation, particularly for those living with mental illnesses, addictive disorders, the elderly, and those with physical health challenges that limit their mobility,” Muzzy Rosenblatt, the nonprofit’s president and CEO, wrote in a letter this weekend to Levin and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “Therefore, taking people we know desperately need support, who have not demonstrated a physical health need for isolation, and moving them to environments that exacerbate their actual mental illness, and without support, puts them at greater risk.” Staffing shortages would also make implementing the bill difficult, he argued in the letter.

Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for the city Department of Social Services, told the New York Post that moving people to locations without support services would put homeless people at risk. “This version of the bill, which came out of nowhere overnight with no conversation, is ham-fisted and reckless, self-defeatingly unilateral and ill-informed, and legally questionable and amateurish,” he said. 

The Daily News reported that Johnson aimed to push the vote forward with the support of at least 35 elected officials, who could override a possible mayoral veto. But members of the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus are concerned that the homeless will be disproportionately moved to communities of color.

De Blasio didn’t say he would veto the bill when asked about it on Sunday. “We’re working with the council,” he said. “We’re in constant dialogue with them.”