Winston Tokuhisa first became homeless in 2006, at the age of 20. Since then, he’s been on and off the streets—aging out of accommodations at the age of 21 or 24, or simply bounced unwillingly between shelters. Now, Tokuhisa is one of 8,000 unhoused New Yorkers facing eviction from the hotels in which they’ve been sheltering during the pandemic—and being pushed back into mass-congregate shelters, as the coronavirus Delta variant spreads through the city.
“People don’t consider, holistically, what it takes for people to be stable,” Tokuhisa told Filter. “Anyone can be homeless. All it takes is a lack of resources, and you’re one step from this situation.”
Tokuhisa wants to be a software engineer. But it’s nearly impossible for him to turn that dream into a reality while navigating the chaos of the New York City shelter system. He can’t attend boot camps because of changes to his shelter location with no notice. He can no longer teach himself to code because the laptop he’d been gifted was stolen while he was in shared accommodations. And now, he has to worry about being forced out of the hotel he’s lived in for months, with less than the legally required 48-hour notice.
New York leadership is claiming success in the fight against COVID, reopening to the state to residents and tourists alike. As a result, thousands of unhoused New Yorkers who’d been placed in hotels to help keep COVID transmission down are now being forced out—rapidly emptying their rooms to make room for tourists (whether or not any arrive).
People who had been living in hotels are being forced to await their transfers for hours in the hot sun without water or bathroom facilities. Many are are being forced into shelters that do not meet their mobility needs.
In July, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that 8,000 unhoused people who’d been living in more than 60 hotels would be transferred into congregate shelters, which frequently sleep dozens of people per room. He claimed that shelters are the best places for people without housing to get support. The people themselves, however, disagree. In response, they began a month-long call for action: #JulyHomelessRights.
Maria Walles previously experienced homelessness in NYC and lost her husband while they were living on the city’s streets and in its parks. She’s now active with Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization founded and led by those with lived experience, and is one of the creators of #JulyHomelessRights.
“It’s sad the way people are being treated right now. This is an emergency. we’re in a pandemic.”
“The system does a lot to you,” Walles told Filter. “They want the city to open up, but the people who are in hotels, how do they feel? Being in a hotel for 16 months has helped some people out.” Many had their own rooms and bathrooms, and gained stability that allowed them to consistently attend school or go to work.
“It’s sad the way people are being treated right now,” Walles said. “This is an emergency. We’re in a pandemic right now. Delta is here.”
Vaccination rates among unhoused New Yorkers are overall lower than the general city population, and the COVID death rates are much higher. Moving people from shelter to hotel to shelter creates further instability—encouraging greater spread of the virus.
“It’s dangerous, irresponsible and callous to not move people into housing and into a congregate shelter,” Amy Blumsack, director of organizing and policy of the Community Action Program at Neighbors Together, told Filter. “Especially with options available.”
Advocates are calling for a transition from hotels to housing. This means faster implementation of Intro. 146, passed in early June, which would increase the value of the main housing vouchers in the city for people to rent accommodation and get off the streets. The current voucher value is just $1,265 per month for a single occupant, or $1,580 per month for a family of four—inadequate to meet the median rent of any neighborhood in the city.
“The city has until December to implement the increased rate, but they can implement it sooner if they so choose,” Blumsack said. “If you move it faster, then people don’t need to get into congregate shelter.”
A court case lodged in mid-July by the Legal Aid Society and Jenner & Block, LLP temporarily stopped transfers out of hotels, arguing that the move back to congregate shelters is happening without sufficient notice or due consideration for disabled people. Although the case succeeded in halting evictions for about a week and ensuring more notice and specific individual needs for transfers, no permanent measures to move people into housing have yet been taken.
Activists plan to continue the events and actions demanding an end to the transfers and street sweeps and a move to permanent housing.
“We’re going to keep the fight going even after this month is over,” Walles said.