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New York was in the midst of a record homelessness crisis even before the coronavirus hit. Some 60,000 people were filling municipal shelters across the city every night. Nearly a third of that number was living in dorm-style facilities for single adults, sharing bathrooms, dining areas and sleeping facilities.
“When Covid struck, we recognised very quickly this was a recipe for disaster,” said Jacqueline Simone, of Coalition for the Homeless, a New York charity. The problem was only going to get worse, they warned, as the economic crisis caused by the pandemic deepened.
They, and other advocacy groups, asked the city to find new shelters for the homeless to protect them from the coronavirus outbreak. Using hotels, which were lying empty across the city due to the pandemic, were seen as a perfect solution. Some 139 commercial hotels quickly stepped forward, according to city authorities – including a number of luxury hotels in Manhattan.
But in recent days, residents of some wealthier areas of New York where some of the hotels are located have complained about what they describe as anti-social behaviour and drug use by homeless people in their neighbourhoods.
In the Upper West Side, where the median house price is more than $1.8m, some residents have started a Facebook group to express their displeasure over the use of three high-end hotels in the area.
“Our community is terrified, angry and frightened,” one member of the ‘Upper West Siders For Safer Streets’ group told the New York Post. Another community group board member from the same area reportedly told the Post that “it feels like the 1970s. Everyone who can move out is moving out.”
The use of hotels to temporarily house the homeless is more prevalent in New York than other cities because of the its “right to shelter” law, which legally obligates the city to provide shelter to anyone who asks for it. If shelters are full, they are placed in hotels. In 2018, the city of New York spent more than $350m on renting hotel rooms for shelters.
The scheme has been welcomed by hotel owners, especially since the onset of the pandemic, which has driven down hotel occupancy rates dramatically. Vijay Dandapani, the leader of New York’s Hotel Association, said the relocation of homeless people to hotels is a “short-term solution” that has saved lives and businesses.
“Almost every hotel wants to do this kind of business. This is short term. This is not permanent. The tabloids are focusing on entirely the wrong thing,” he told The Independent.
“Last year we had 69 million visitors to the city. Right now it is zero,” he says. “Nobody is anticipating many people doing any kind of travel for the next year. In the meantime you have hotels with property taxes to pay. The city has not given an inch in that regard.”
He said without hotels opening their doors there would have been “rampant infections in these homeless shelters, if not deaths”.
Mr Dandapani also noted the irony of residents’ complaints about a scheme that is helping hotels stay afloat when those same hotels help revive the area on the Upper West Side in question.
“There’s a lot of uproar about this hotel on the Upper West Side called the Lucerne. I’ve been 30 years in the New York City hotel market, and I can tell you that that area was a dump. It was impossible to go within a hundred feet of the Lucerne,” he said. “Whoever that owner is put in $20m plus to make it what it was. Did these people thank these owners for the gentrification that resulted in their property prices going up?”
While he added that he understood the concerns of residents, he called for pressure to be put on the police to provide more security in the area, rather than trying to force the homeless out.