Legal Aid Suit Demands that City Give All Homeless People Solo Rooms During Covid

This article was originally published on Oct 23 at 12:05am EDT by THE CITY

Advocates draw attention to increased struggles for homeless people during the coronavirus outbreak, Oct. 2, 2020. Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY.

Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY

Homeless men and women were left to languish in packed hotel rooms and shelters as COVID-19 raged in New York City, putting them at heightened risk of serious illness, a new lawsuit demanding relief charges.

The suit, filed late Thursday by the Legal Aid Society and the law firm Jenner & Block, calls on the city to provide single-occupancy hotel rooms to “every single adult homeless New Yorker until public health authorities determine it is safe to return to congregate settings.”

The homeless men and women claim in their complaint that jamming as many as 11 people in a shelter bedroom put them at increased risk of infection.

Some shelter residents named in the suit told THE CITY they share bedrooms and bathrooms despite having severe underlying medical conditions — such as cancer, hepatitis C, asthma and heart disease — that put them at higher risk of fatal COVID infections.

“I’m not safe at all,” said one of the plaintiffs, who lives in a downtown Manhattan women’s shelter and shares a room with 10 other women — and a bathroom with as many as 20 — despite her high-risk health conditions, including diabetes.

“I know a second wave is going to come bigger than the first one, and I don’t feel safe where I am,” she added.

Little ‘Aid, Care and Support’

The suit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, cites the city, its Department of Homeless Services and administrator Joslyn Carter, along with her boss, Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks.

DHS says it has placed as many as 13,000 out of the nearly 18,000 adults in the shelter system into hotels — most visibly at the Lucerne, an Upper West Side hotel where a legal battle has ensued over whether the men staying there may remain.

But in many instances, homeless hotel residents are sharing rooms — even when they have medical conditions that local health guidelines say should entitle them to private rooms, the lawsuit contends.

Homeless people were packed into the 30th Street Men’s Shelter in Manhattan in May. Obtained by THE CITY.

Rather than automatically put anyone with a qualifying medical condition in their own room, the lawsuit claims, the individuals must ask for a special placement. Many are not aware the option is available, according to the suit.

The suit alleges that the city’s “refusal” in many cases to place homeless adults in single occupancy rooms to protect their health violates the state constitution’s guarantee of “aid, care and support of the needy.”

Past landmark lawsuits successfully used that same provision to guarantee a right to shelter for homeless people in New York City. Among the attorneys who sued to advance that right was Banks, who was a top Legal Aid attorney before becoming the architect of de Blasio’s homelessness response.

Banks’ agency, the Department of Social Services, has not yet commented on the COVID suit.

Attorneys say the decision to file the lawsuit marks the culmination of months-long frustrations with city agencies during the pandemic.

“We gave a lot of opportunities to try to resolve this,” said Joshua Goldfein, who leads the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project.

“We’re facing right now a potential resurgence of the virus and everyone is being asked to do what they can in order to appropriately social distance,” Goldfein added. “We’re asking for the city to allow homeless adults to isolate in the same way that they ask others.”

Homeless at High Risk

The Coalition for the Homeless, which is also a plaintiff in the suit, estimated in June that shelter residents were 61% more likely to die of the coronavirus than the city population as a whole.

People staying in those shelters described sharing their bedrooms with multiple other people and bathrooms with an entire floor as the virus raged this spring.

Among them is plaintiff Gary Corbin, who abandoned his city-provided hotel room because of concerns about his vulnerability to the illness stemming from his hepatitis C and from past cancer treatment, according to the lawsuit.

Corbin — feeling unsafe with a roommate whose actions “exposed him to a high level of risk of contracting [COVID-19] and negatively impacted his mental health” — requested a single occupancy bedroom, which the city denied, the suit alleges.

He is currently living on the streets, having burned through his monthly disability benefits to fund his own private hotel stays, according to the lawsuit.

The suit also charges that the city is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act for “failing” to provide reasonable accommodations to all qualifying individuals who request a single room due to their medical conditions.

Court papers cite advisories from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending protective measures for older adults and people with certain medical conditions in order to decrease risks of airborne virus transmission.

Federal health guidelines for homeless shelters recommend that “non-group housing options (such as hotels/motels) that have individual rooms” should be considered and put in use depending on a jurisdiction’s available resources, THE CITY reported in May.

‘It’s Inhumane’

One of the plaintiffs, Tamara Williams, shares a shelter room with 11 other people, despite having a heart condition and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the suit says.

And B.J. Athill, also named in the suit, shares a Manhattan hotel room with one unrelated individual despite having a respiratory illness. Athill commutes to his job at a downtown grocery store several times a week.

Despite his fears of illness, the lawsuit claims, “staff at Mr. Athill’s shelter never notified him that he could request a reasonable accommodation to be transferred to a single room.”

But even some of those with qualifying medical conditions who requested accommodation didn’t get it, the suit claims.

Another plaintiff, M.F., who asked not to be named, described sharing her dorm-like bedroom with 10 other women in her downtown Manhattan shelter and a bathroom with her entire floor — 20 women in all. That bathroom, she told THE CITY, has two showers and one bathtub.

The 55-year-old has diabetes and a breathing disorder, and works as a home health aide for an elderly couple on the Upper East Side.

The shelter beds, she said, “are set up like office cubicles,” which allow little privacy or opportunity for social distancing. And the bedrooms on the sixth floor of the shelter and parts of the fifth floor have bed bugs, she told THE CITY.

At the shelter, residents are not screened for COVID-19 symptoms, she told THE CITY. If anyone has tested positive for the illness in the time she’s been there, “No one’s ever told me,” she said.

When she requested access to a private room and bathroom for social distance, she said, shelter staff allegedly responded by telling the woman, who has bipolar disorder, that the Department of Homeless Services “does not put crazy people in hotels,” according to the lawsuit.

DHS was not immediately available for comment.

“I really hope this lawsuit changes things, a tremendous amount of change is needed,” she said. “It’s inhumane. The conditions they have in this place are inhumane.”

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NEWS | 28 comments | permalink
    1. MP says:

      I think NYC should give everyone their own apartment or room. It’s ridiculous that people have to share their apartments with roommates. How inhumane. We should also ask for a tesla for everyone and a personal chef. How can we be expected to ride the subway or go to the grocery store.

    2. UpperWest says:

      Real question: Isn’t this a wonderful opportunity for those in other neighborhoods that criticized the UWS (including city council members) to volunteer rooms and buildings in their neighborhoods for new sheltering so that we can eliminate doubling up in the hotels already occupied here?

    3. blacklikeu says:

      Not trying to be funny or make fun of a sad situation – but – anyone can either come to NYC from somewhere else, and state that they are homeless and get a free single room in a New York city hotel.
      Regardless if you are really homeless or just want a free ride in the city.
      Any way these facts can be checked out to weed the ones that are playing the game by the new rules?

      • You’re given a pretty detailed questionnaire at the intake interview. Then I assume caseworkers call to verify some of the information you provided, including whether or not you can live where you used to live. But coming from another state is not a barrier; the Supreme Court struck down residency requirements as infringing the constitutional freedom to travel.

        • blacklikeu says:

          Thank you Homeless New Yorker for your input.
          Basically, once you pass the “test”, and I’ll bet it’s easy enough to do it, you are in the system, living in a private, or semi private room in a New York hotel, care of the tax payers. Not a bad way to be welcomed to the city.

    4. Lisa says:

      No one has the right to live in a city they cannot afford. I would have loved to live in NYC after undergrad, but I couldn’t get a job that paid enough. So I stayed in Baltimore (which I could afford) until I got a job that allowed me to live with roommates.

      Housing for the homeless should be contingent upon full time community service and meeting behavioral standards (mask wearing, substance abuse treatment, etc). We also need to weed out those who have come to NYC to stay with a brother, cousin or friend — then end up homeless because their host kicks them out due to drinking/drugging. I know two homeless men in this category – they aren’t New Yorkers and could move back home with their moms if they wanted. But they’d rather be “in the life” and stay here and use.

    5. Leon says:

      I have a friend who works 50 hours a week as a nanny (on the books) plus multiple side gigs, and her husband also works full time plus side jobs. They live in the outer Bronx and she commutes over an hour each way. She lives in a two-bedroom apartment with three young kids. She got COVID this summer and had to quarantine in that situation – no one gave her her own luxury hotel room.

      Perhaps we should be devoting more resources to people like her and not the cause of the week for our neighborhood bleeding hearts.

      • We should devote public and charitable resources to all those who need them and can’t afford to get them on their own. When there’s a will and enough money, there’s a way. NYC has enough money.

        • Leon says:

          NYC has enough money? Have you read a newspaper lately? The city government is in a really bad financial position and it isn’t getting better anytime soon. And raising taxes on the rich is not going to solve that problem.

          I agree that we need to help all of our residents but that doesn’t mean they deserve luxury accommodations nor should we be required to help those who relocated here in search of a free lunch.

        • Boris says:

          I have no patience for people who say that some other entity has enough or makes enough money to pay for something. You have no right to comment on other peoples’ money.

      • charles becker says:

        Your insightful post could be misconstrued because of the use of one word which was perhaps.

        Don’t hard working people automatically deserve more from gov’t than people who are takers from society?

    6. NYC taxpayer says:

      A wonderful proposal. And who is going to fund it?
      There must also be at least a few million other residents of NYC who could use private accommodations as well.

    7. Disillusioned Upper Westsider says:

      Why is it that the homeless men and women are entitled to have a single room to themselves? What have they done to deserve this preferential treatment? What contributions have they made to society?? What about all the front line workers that came down with COVID-19 and had to quarantine at home with several other family members.

      • Big Earl says:

        Exactly. Why are they entitled to anything? It’s an insult and slap in the face to all the hard working citizens who have to live in cramped quarters with others. We’re in a city. That’s life. People have to share living spaces. Plenty of solo space in rural Pennsylvania I hear.

    8. Anne says:

      I am glad to see some balance in the comments section.
      The idea that Manhattan or San Francisco or any other expensive locale “owes” a free room to someone for nothing is ridiculous (and an insult to those of us who work hard for a living).
      Maybe work-training “campuses” in inexpensive places in the Midwest would serve to house and train people “in transition” to productive lives. And mental health and addiction “campuses” in cheaper locations also could be developed.
      But Manhattan?
      It’s silly and impractical.
      And homelessness should be outlawed— i.e. sleeping in ATMs/ on streets. Humanely relocate people to good facilities outside of densely populated, expensive areas to get the help they need.

    9. What is the case title and number?

    10. everyoneneedsacar says:

      How about a car too.

    11. the struggle is real says:

      When I moved to the city 20 years ago after college I couldn’t afford it, so I shared a 1 bedroom with a roommate in a rough neighborhood. How many struggling working people are sharing with roommates? Sheltering in their basement studios infested with roaches for 2000 a month? Are we going to bail them out too?

    12. Pepper says:

      I know of a guy that is “homeless” & is staying at a hotel in Manhattan during the pandemic. He drives a new BMW & sells drugs on the side. I hope he has his own room.