The coronavirus pandemic is hitting the most vulnerable populations hardest. This includes homeless people, who can’t follow the most common advice about how to stay safe: stay home and wash your hands. For those who don't have housing options, basic mandates like washing hands, taking showers, or maintaining adequate social distance are all nearly impossible. For those who are living on the streets or packed in dorm-like shelters, it is entirely impossible. As a result, advocates in cities across the country are pushing for homeless folks to be housed in vacant hotel rooms to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In some places, this is already beginning. Across California, people are being moved from crowded shelters to empty hotel rooms. As of Monday, 11 hotels in Los Angeles agreed to house people. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority hopes to have 1,700 rooms available by the end of the week — short of the 15,000 rooms they hope to ultimately secure. Just days after San Francisco opened a 394-bed shelter, they also announced they were also moving towards housing homeless people in hotels rather than shelters.
“We need to think about making changes to avoid having an outbreak, or situation, in places… where we know there are large populations of people,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said. But California is not alone in this effort — Virginia also announced last week that they were designated $2.5 million in emergency funding to house people currently in shelters or on the streets in vacant hotel rooms, and other major cities and states are taking similar precautions.
In New York City, homeless people have begun to be transferred to some of the 100,000 vacant hotel rooms in the city. Currently, only people with symptoms of the illness who do not need hospitalization are being taken to hotels, along with older folks over the age of 70. “We’ve also begun the process of strategically transferring some of our most vulnerable clients, starting with those over 70, to dedicated shelters within our system for isolation out of an abundance of caution,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's office said in a statement to Refinery29.
This effort comes as social distancing requirements heighten in major cities like New York, where people are being fined for not abiding by these new rules. Last week, photos of homeless people in Las Vegas being forced to sleep six feet apart on the asphalt of a parking caused outrage online. Those depicted in the images were displaced after their shelter was temporarily closed due to a resident testing positive for COVID-19. "After criminalizing homelessness this year, Las Vegas is now packing people into concrete grids out of sight," former Democratic presidential Julián Castro tweeted. "There are 150K hotel rooms in Vegas going unused right now. How about public private cooperation (resources) to temporarily house them there?"
Despite these calls to action in various cities seeking to protect the U.S. homeless population, advocates say it’s still not enough. “[New York City] said they are ready to put people who are showing symptoms into isolation rooms, but what we are saying is we need a proactive and preventative approach,” says Josh Dean, the Executive Director of Human.NYC, a nonprofit that organizes current and formerly street homeless individuals. “That means taking people who are not sick [to hotel rooms] so they can practice social distancing, they can shower, they can use the restroom, they can do the things housed New Yorkers can do.”
Human.NYC, along with a coalition of other advocacy groups, launched a petition over two weeks ago calling on de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to move folks in shelters and on the streets into hotels. Their campaign, using the hashtag #HomelessCantStayHome, has garnered support from city councilors and state senators. They also note that there is emergency federal funding available for this purpose, so the city itself wouldn’t even have to budget for it.
In their statement, the Mayor’s office indicated they weren’t ruling out that possibility: “As this unprecedented situation evolves, we’re evolving with it and continue [to] explore new policy responses to protect the health of those who we serve.”
The City of Boston is also calling on local governments to step in and help, particularly after a Tuesday announcement citing that roughly one in three Boston community members experiencing homelessness tested positive for COVID-19. The count only included those who were given a test, and most were found to be asymptomatic. Back on April 2nd, 28 legislators sent a letter to Governor Charlie Baker that asked him to consider the recommendations made by the Material Aid and Advocacy Program (MAAP), a Boston-based nonprofit that provides support to people experiencing homelessness. Within those recommendations is the use of hotel rooms, which was suggested on March 25 but has yet to be implemented in the city.
"This will only get significantly worse, and is likely to include the preventable deaths of unhoused community members unless drastic changes are taken immediately," says Cassie Hurd, Executive Director of MAAP. "People experiencing homelessness need and deserve safe and stable housing every day. But right now, unhoused people need and deserve hotel rooms that offer space to isolate and have access to bathrooms, showers, phones (for telemedicine among other things), and safety. "