Richter temporarily blocks the transfer of New York City homeless people from hotels to group accommodations

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to bring 8,000 homeless people back to group accommodations from hotels they temporarily lived in during the COVID-19 pandemic saw a temporary setback last week. A federal judge blocked the plan and ruled that the city had not properly considered the health of the homeless when it began implementing the move.

The verdict resulted from a lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Society. The organization alleged the city refused to allow homeless people with disabilities or serious health problems to apply for adequate housing, despite a 2017 class action lawsuit requiring the city to do so. The Legal Aid Society accused the city of violating rights and endangering the lives of the homeless. The judge agreed that violating the right to reasonable accommodation could cause “irreparable harm” to the “psychological, physical and mental health” of the homeless.

Bill de Blasio (Photo credit: Skidmore)

The homeless are the weakest part of the population and are hardest hit by the effects of the social crisis. In the early stages of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, New York City brought about 8,000 homeless people from overcrowded group accommodations to hotel rooms. These efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus have significantly improved the living conditions of the homeless. Hotel rooms gave these people privacy, security, and a level of dignity that lodging had denied them.

But last month, de Blasio joined forces with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo – both Democrats – to prematurely lift public health measures and proclaim an end to the pandemic. De Blasio, who is trying to lure workers and visitors back to New York City, says returning the homeless to shelters is vital to the city’s reopening program.

Despite declaring that he cares about the welfare of the homeless, De Blasio has put them in emergency shelters where the coronavirus, especially the more contagious Delta variant, can easily spread. In these accommodations, a single room often accommodates up to 20 people who sleep just a few meters away from each other. De Blasio also claimed that returning homeless people to group shelters will enable them to get the treatment and counseling services they need. In fact, lodging operators were able to maintain most of these services while the homeless stayed in hotels.

Court documents show that by July 9, the city had moved 3,685 homeless adults from 23 hotels back to shelters or rooms in other hotels. The homeless were forced to stuff their belongings in rubbish bags and were put on school buses to drive them to the most remote areas of the city. A woman who uses a wheelchair and who has kidney disease and previous strokes was taken to a shelter on a hill that she could not climb.

Mike Roberts has been relocated from the Lucerne hotel on the affluent Upper West Side to accommodation without air conditioning. At night he often wakes up drenched in sweat. “Here, when I wake up, I’ll be in a booth,” he told the New York Times. “There will be three people around me sleeping, one snoring, one likely getting high, or some guy walking up and down the floor. Who wants that?”

Michelle Ward requested adequate accommodation that would allow her to stay in a hotel near the Empire State Building, but was denied. She has severe sciatica and asthma, along with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder. “I can’t take this anymore,” she told the New York Times.

About 5,000 homeless people stay in hotels. On July 13, Judge Gregory Howard Woods of the Federal District Court in Manhattan ruled that the city must meet with homeless people to determine if they are disabled and to qualify for reasonable accommodation. He noted that the city must send at least seven days in advance before transferring anyone entitled to these accommodations. According to the city, around 68 percent of the homeless are physically or mentally disabled.

Though homeless advocates hailed the decision as a victory, it won’t stop the transfers. The city will “make minor adjustments to our process” and begin moving people again this week, a spokesman for the New York Department of Homeless Services (DHS) told the New York Times.

These transfers are part of New York City’s relentless campaign to get rid of the homeless. Police have dismantled homeless camps and city officials have created a program that allows New Yorkers to report beggars and homeless people to the authorities.

The homeless who have protested the city abuse have faced police reprisals. Several hours before Judge Woods ruled the legal aid challenge, 12 homeless New Yorkers and their supporters went to the Department of Social Services (DSS) office, which oversees the DHS. They asked to speak to Commissioner Steve Banks about providing permanent housing and upgrading the city’s rent subsidies for the homeless. The police arrested six demonstrators.

Although New York City homelessness has reached its highest level since the Great Depression, candidates for the Democratic nomination for mayor’s office barely mentioned it during the election campaign. An exception was Andrew Yang, the businessman and former candidate for the Democratic presidential run. In one of the key debates, Yang spoke on behalf of the most heartless section of the city’s financial oligarchy, blaming the homeless for the deterioration in the quality of life for New Yorkers.

Former police officer and former Republican Eric Adams won the primary election and is a Democratic candidate for mayoral. Adams made vague promises to shelter the homeless, but they’re as empty as the similar promises his Democrat de Blasio made eight years ago.

As of July 13, more than 4,100 homeless people were infected with the coronavirus and more than 120 died. The DHS estimated that by July 2, only 21.5 percent of adults who stayed in a shelter were fully vaccinated.

The data suggests that the New York City pandemic is worsening. On July 18, the daily average of the total number of cases for the past seven days was 523, a 64 percent increase from the daily average for the past 28 days, which was 318. In addition, the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus now makes up 41 percent of the cases tested.

Since it represents only a temporary setback to de Blasio’s plan, Judge Woods’ ruling shows that it is impossible to protect the homeless by appealing to capitalist courts. These courts, like de Blasio and the New York City Council, subordinate all considerations, including rights to housing and health, to the profit interests of the city’s financial elite.

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