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Head Of NYC Social Services Works To Move People From Homeless Shelters To Hotels

New York City Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks says the city is moving about 1,000 people each week from homeless shelters to hotels where they are at a lower risk of contracting COVID-19.
New York City Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks says the city is moving about 1,000 people each week from homeless shelters to hotels where they are at a lower risk of contracting COVID-19.

In New York City, where COVID-19 has claimed more than 15,000 lives, those within the city's homeless population are among the most vulnerable.

Most of the estimated 60,000 people experiencing homelessness in New York have placements in shelters — where tighter quarters can fuel the spread of infection.

As of Wednesday, 921 people who are homeless in the city had tested positive for COVID-19 — 75 of whom died, according to the Department of Social Services. More than 750 who contracted the virus are staying in shelters.

Steven Banks, commissioner for the Department of Social Services, says the city has been working to reduce the number of people in its shelters since the beginning of March.

"It's unfortunate that we have lost some lives, which is why we are aggressively moving to bring people from those congregate shelters into commercial hotels," Banks said in an interview with Morning Edition. Banks said that "in order to promote social distancing in a congregate shelter, we wanted to de-densify those shelters and move individuals out."

The commissioner spoke further about what the city is doing to help its homeless population.

Interview Highlights

How do you decide who gets to go to a hotel room, which presumably is a safer, healthier environment?

We prioritize, first, people over 70. Then we looked at our largest shelters and wanted to immediately cut the population dramatically and begin to do those moves. And then now we've been moving entire shelters into commercial hotel rooms.

On the health conditions at shelters

Typically it's eight to 12 people in a dorm and it can be larger. ... We wanted to promote social distancing. We staggered the meals, we staggered the cleaning. We took a number of steps that we thought were important to take, but we wanted to go further. And that's why we've been moving about 1,000 individuals a week out of those congregate shelters.

On whether this provides a long-term solution to keeping people safe

While evictions are up all across the country, we drove evictions down 41% through our right-to-counsel law and providing renters' payments. We have rental subsidies that are largely paid for by the city in which 140,000 people have gotten permanent housing through our rehousing programs.

... We have an eviction moratorium in the city. Should that be lifted, we're ready with our right-to-counsel lawyers, the not-for-profits like the Legal Aid Society that are going to help us keep people in their homes. Meanwhile, if people do lose their homes, we have the ability to provide them with shelter, and through this commercial intel initiative, the ability to keep them safe.

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