March 25, 2020
An open letter to Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, calling for emergency action to address the survival needs of homeless New Yorkers amid COVID-19 pandemic:
As organizations that organize, build power with, and provide direct services to homeless New Yorkers, we call on the City and State to take immediate action to protect people experiencing homelessness and reduce the spread of COVID-19. Over 80,000 people experience homelessness in New York City on a given night. While people experiencing homelessness are amongst the most vulnerable to COVID-19, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio still have not offered any long-term plan to address the survival needs of homeless New Yorkers.
Homeless people are human beings: they are our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Their lives are not disposable and their needs must be addressed with the same urgency and compassion as those who have housing.
COVID-19 is not the first public health crisis, nor will it be the last. The City and State must restructure policies and priorities to build a social safety net that ensures housing, services, and care for all. In the coming days, the City and State must take action to address immediate needs of homeless New Yorkers, or risk mass infection and lives lost throughout the community.
We call on the City and State to immediately-
- Meet the immediate survival needs of those living on the street: Vital services across the City are rapidly closing down or reducing capacity. The City must provide hand-washing stations, portable toilets, hygiene kits, hand sanitizer, socks, nutritious food, charging stations, and other supplies to those on the street. Street homeless New Yorkers who do not wish to go to shelter should be offered tents to be able to stay where they are. The City and State must also utilize available public and private property, such as schools and churches, to expand drop-in centers and safe havens that offer life sustaining services and can connect people to safer spaces. Drop-in centers should also be able to refer people to hotels where they would have access to showers, meals, warmth, and the space to social distance.
- End all law enforcement sweeps, diversion, and targeting of homeless New Yorkers: There should be no stops, tickets, or arrests for low level offenses by any law enforcement agency. Police should be removed from any homeless outreach. If people are sleeping on the subways or in mass transit facilities, they should be left alone by law enforcement as long as they are socially distancing. This includes ending the Subway Diversion Program, and ending the “sweeps” or “clean-ups” often conducted by Sanitation, the Department of Homeless Services, and NYPD.
- Leave no one hungry: Provide fresh, healthy, nutritious food that meets different dietary restrictions to those in shelters, hotels, quarantine, and on the street. Allow for every household to purchase prepared and/or hot food with food stamps because many homeless households — including those in shelter — don’t have access to cooking facilities. When shelters do provide food, it is often over-processed and not nutritious. Provide three meals a day to any New Yorker in need of a meal or food by expanding access at existing School Meals, Senior Food Sites, and other community food pantries/kitchens and opening new food distribution sites. Provide a Public Assistance restaurant allowance to all homeless households and increase the amounts.
- Use vacant hotels and SRO’s to ensure safety for those in shelters and on the street: The City must offer single rooms (such as full-service commercial hotels with meals onsite) to all street homeless New Yorkers and to all shelter residents in dormitory settings, prioritizing those who are at high risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. This is critical because many shelters do not have sufficient space to follow the Center for Disease Control or New York City Department of Health guidance on social distancing. Placements must be offered on a voluntary basis and people must be able to choose where they most feel safe. The City must provide access to social, medical, and housing placement services as needed for those in hotel settings.
- House the homeless now: Everyone who needs a home should have access to one. Con Edison has access to the locations of every vacant apartment in otherwise occupied buildings that have an electric meter. There is still tremendous housing stock in vacant City or State-owned and privately-owned buildings, including vacant rent-stabilized units, condos, vacant HPD Housing Connect Units (some of which are currently reserved for those making over six figures), and empty NYCHA units. These units must all be made available to homeless New Yorkers now. All unoccupied supportive housing units must be made available, without bureaucratic barriers, to people on the street using a Housing First approach to housing placement. Rental subsidies must be increased to reflect rents in New York City and must be made available to all who are homeless.
- Enforce safety measures and increase support in all shelters: Shelters must increase support and enforce safety measures to protect homeless residents. All shelter residents must be allowed to stay in shelters and dorms during the day rather than be required to leave. Residents in shelters report providers have not increased cleaning or provided access to critical supplies, including hand sanitizer. Cleaning standards must be enforced and residents should be allowed to remain in shelter during inspections. The City must also make it possible for residents in dormitory settings to sufficiently distance themselves from others, including a minimum of 10 feet between beds, enough space to socially distance during meal times and when entering or leaving the building. Those in shelter must have access to WiFi in dorms and common areas, and residents must be allowed to bring in their own technology and use all available computers. This is crucial in allowing people to stay informed and reduce social isolation.
- Access to quality health care: While ensuring the containment of COVID-19 must be a priority, the City and State must provide access to quality health care services to support the diverse health needs of homeless New Yorkers, including harm reduction services for people who use drugs, mental health services, and care for people with chronic health conditions. Continuity in care must be established for people moved to other locations (such as commercial hotels). No medical insurance should be terminated during this time and medical insurance cases that were closed should be reinstated.
- Communities United for Police Reform
- Neighbors Together
- Picture the Homeless
- Safety Net Activists at the Urban Justice Center
Additional Endorsing Organizations, as of 3/24/2020