City Limits: NYC’s Homeless Hotel Population Surges as City Grapples with Housing Crisis


January 29, 2020

Bedsheets decorated with cartoon characters hang from a curtain rod at a hotel in Morrisania, trinkets and household items line a windowsill at another hotel near JFK Airport — signs the sites are more than just temporary accommodations for out-of-town visitors.

Inside a motel in Howard Beach, families experiencing homelessness line up at dinner time to heat their packaged meals in the lone community microwave. Some parents stock coolers with ice because the rooms lack refrigerators.

“It was clean, but really small,” sanitation worker Sean Burt says of a Long Island City motel where he and his 4-year-old son stayed for about a month. Burt and his son have been homeless for nearly three years and have been assigned to various temporary shelters, including hotels. A hotel in Jamaica felt “isolated,” he says of the narrow corridors, the closed unit doors and the lack of common space. “They don’t want you to move around in there,” he says.

More than 50 years after New York City first began using commercial hotels to house homeless New Yorkers, the facilities continue to play a major role in allowing the city to meet a legal mandate for providing shelter to people experiencing homelessness. Yet the surging number of New Yorkers staying in hotel rooms paid for by the city comes at a major cost — to city finances, and to the emotional and physical wellbeing of occupants, particularly thousands of children.

Bedsheets decorated with cartoon characters hang from a curtain rod at a hotel in Morrisania, trinkets and household items line a windowsill at another hotel near JFK Airport — signs the sites are more than just temporary accommodations for out-of-town visitors.

Inside a motel in Howard Beach, families experiencing homelessness line up at dinner time to heat their packaged meals in the lone community microwave. Some parents stock coolers with ice because the rooms lack refrigerators.

“It was clean, but really small,” sanitation worker Sean Burt says of a Long Island City motel where he and his 4-year-old son stayed for about a month. Burt and his son have been homeless for nearly three years and have been assigned to various temporary shelters, including hotels. A hotel in Jamaica felt “isolated,” he says of the narrow corridors, the closed unit doors and the lack of common space. “They don’t want you to move around in there,” he says.

More than 50 years after New York City first began using commercial hotels to house homeless New Yorkers, the facilities continue to play a major role in allowing the city to meet a legal mandate for providing shelter to people experiencing homelessness. Yet the surging number of New Yorkers staying in hotel rooms paid for by the city comes at a major cost — to city finances, and to the emotional and physical wellbeing of occupants, particularly thousands of children.

“It’s completely random and there are differences in services” depending on the type of setting, says Trapani of the assignment process. “We need to, at minimum, ensure that any hotel-shelter contract has the same service funding level as their counterparts in Tier II shelters.”

“Tier II” family shelters are apartment-like settings with on-site social workers. They are typically run by larger, more established organizations that operate programs across the service spectrum, including permanent supportive housing.

“When you look at what families need to be stabilized, those resources are very limited in hotels,” says Rodriguez, of CCC. “There are no social workers, but that doesn’t even touch on issues like nutrition and food and what families in hotels have access to. There are no kitchens.”

The city has seemed reluctant to spend more for services inside hotels because of the goal of phasing out their use, Rodriguez says.

“At the same time we know there are thousands of families residing in hotels,” she says. “Investing in services for people who are there now does not equate to a continued acceptance of hotels as shelters.”

More services in the meantime?

Ending the use of hotels demands a serious increase in truly affordable units set aside for the homeless. That’s a key priority for CCC and the Family Homelessness Coalition in the current city budget process.

In the short-term, phasing out hotels requires the creation of more dedicated family shelters.

Councilmember Stephen Levin is pushing a measure to increase the value of housing vouchers for homeless New Yorkers. The city’s voucher program, known as CityFHEPS, covers the cost of rent up to a certain monthly amount, depending on household size. The maximum amounts pale in comparison to market rates in most neighborhoods, however.

“We need a voucher program that actually works,” Levin says. “We can build new shelters, I support that, but we have to have a voucher program that functions and get the amount raised to fair market rate.”

As the city works toward those goals, agencies must ensure that the hotels housing more than 4,000 kids provide more complete services, the Family Homelessness Coalition said in response to de Blasio executive budget proposal

“When shelter is unavoidable, families should be able to access support services while in shelter to help them find a permanent home,” the coalition said. “Social supports must be embedded in hotels as long as families are sheltered in these settings.

CCC and the FHC are fighting for funding to enable the service providers that operate services at the hotels to hire dedicated social workers and recreation specialists. Levin has taken up the cause, which failed to make last year’s budget.

“If they’re in Tier IIs then why on earth are they not in hotels, which are arguably more traumatic?” Levin says.

Advocates are also exploring mobile laundry and cooking facilities, but there is not yet any concrete plan to provide them.

Adding social workers is the bare minimum for confronting the enormous problem of family homelessness, he concedes. “Social workers will mitigate the negative impact, but they won’t reverse it,” he says. “We have to get out of hotels as quickly as possible.”

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