In normal times, Darryl Rice, 54, and his friends would spend every evening collecting cardboard boxes to sleep on at a Fifth Avenue corner, just four blocks from Trump Tower and the luxury Bergdorf Goodman department store.
But when the coronavirus officially shut down New York on March 22, no stores meant there were no boxes. The gym where he showered and shaved had closed. The bathrooms at Grand Central Station and Penn Station were shut. The soup kitchens followed right after.
That's when "the reality and the despair hit," Rice told BuzzFeed News. He'd slept on New York City streets for two years — but this time, he worried how he would cope for months with no services.
The Homeless Can't Stay Home campaign, run by homeless advocacy groups, paid for Rice to move into his own Midtown hotel room two weeks ago. His room has a queen-size bed, desk, and private bathroom. When he first arrived, he slept for nearly a day and a half straight. "This has been a real blessing to get off my feet and get some needed rest," he told BuzzFeed News.
Housing people who are homeless in the thousands upon thousands of empty hotel rooms around the US has become a major talking point, especially after photos emerged on social media last month of people sleeping in a temporary shelter set up in a Las Vegas parking lot as around 150,000 gleaming — and empty — casino hotel rooms sat nearby on the Strip. (A tent shelter was later erected.)
Why did people who are homeless need to sleep on the asphalt, in marked-off boxes to maintain social distancing, when there were rooms nearby?
The argument has become popular among liberal lawmakers and homeless advocates. It would both protect people who are homeless from getting sick, advocates argued, and protect the community at large by slowing the spread of the virus and sparing hospitals from being overwhelmed with a patient population that is especially vulnerable. Plus, it provides an income to hotels that are sitting empty.
But is it as simple as empty hotel room + person who is homeless = a solution to homelessness during a health crisis? It depends on whom you ask.
Rice said that if he were relying on the government, he would still be on the street. He said he refuses to enter the shelter system because it's dangerous and would have made social distancing even more difficult. New York City has slowly been moving some shelter residents into hotel rooms, particularly those who are over 70 or in locations where social distancing is impossible. But unless they are sick, advocates say, residents are sharing a twin room, not in their own individual room.
Rice understands why New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called images of people who are homeless sleeping on subways during the crisis "disgusting" and "disrespectful to the essential workers who need to ride the subway system," noting that they are just searching for the safest and warmest place to sleep.
"Unless you isolate people on the street, your problem is going to be exacerbated," Rice said, adding that most people who live on the street would happily move into their own hotel room to help themselves and the general public. "It's best for everybody to put people up in hotel rooms," he said.
As private businesses, hotels do not have to open their doors unless they want to. Many have laid off their staff and closed. The city of Las Vegas tweeted that "the county did attempt to work with hotel partners but deals were not able to be ironed out." Clark County did not respond to a request for comment.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state had secured 15,000 hotel rooms to house people experiencing homelessness under Project Roomkey, in collaboration with Motel 6. It prioritized people over 65 and anyone who had COVID-19 symptoms, or were exposed, and needed to self-quarantine.
In Los Angeles, which like New York has a dire problem with homelessness — it is estimated that nearly 60,000 people were homeless there in 2019 — officials are pushing hard to make hotel rooms available. To pay for the rooms, officials are drawing on a variety of emergency sources, including funds from FEMA and the state.
Sarah Dusseault, the chair of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said the county is embracing the hotel solution. The homelessness authority invited the media to a swank Westside hotel earlier this month to witness residents who are homeless moving in. The authority said it refused to allow the media to name the hotel in order to prevent it from being overwhelmed with eager unauthorized guests. It noted that rooms usually go for $389 a night.
Officials have refused to say how much the government is paying for such rooms, but some advocates have said that the rate for local governments in California is anywhere from $40 to $100 a night.
Many hotels, battered by the steep declines in their business, are eagerly joining the program, Dusseault said. Others are joining after officials “encourage their civic spirit.” California officials have the power to commandeer hotel rooms, but so far have not.
Dusseault said many homeless advocates view the program as an opportunity, at long last, "to connect people to long-term housing.”
But as of Wednesday, Los Angeles County had placed only 1,351 people in hotel rooms as part of Project Roomkey. And certain California cities, including Laguna Hills and Laguna Woods, sued the state and protested hotels in their communities.
Attorney Kelly Richardson represented the cities in two lawsuits and argued that they are concerned about bringing sick residents into hotels in senior communities.
"No one wants to deal with the disease issue, portraying it unfairly as an anti-homeless issue," Richardson told BuzzFeed News. "Why would you want your grandmother or grandfather living next to an infectious disease facility when the US government has told you the senior citizens are the most severely in danger?"
Ayres Hotel in Laguna Woods, a community predominantly made up of senior citizens, had been earmarked to be used as part of Project Roomkey. After the lawsuit, Ayres scrapped its plans. The hotel did not respond to a request for comment.
Another lawsuit, against Laguna Hills Inn, is continuing after an Orange County Superior Court judge said he didn't believe the county was turning the building into a public nuisance.
"I think sometimes when people have righteous zeal to try and do what they think is right, sometimes you can make decisions that are not completely thought through," Richardson said. "And I think in this instance, my client's safety has been jeopardized by people invoking the concept of the greater good."
New York City has the largest homeless population in the country, estimated at about 80,000 people. Most live in shelters, but more than 3,000 people are estimated to be on the street. The city has been slower to adopt the radical strategies being employed across the country to move at-risk people into hotels.
On Thursday, Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the New York City subway would be shut nightly between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. for cleaning. Both officials noted it would help discourage people who are homeless from sleeping on the subway. “If you’re not going back and forth all night on a train, you’re coming above ground," said de Blasio, arguing that closing subways will get homeless people into shelters and using social services."
Advocates, including members of the city council and a coalition of homeless groups, have been pushing to make up to 30,000 of the city's 100,000 empty hotel rooms available to people who are homeless, using a variety of emergency funding sources. The New York City Council is currently debating a bill, led by Speaker Corey Johnson, to ensure people who are homeless are allowed an individual hotel room to help them quarantine safely during the pandemic.
At least a dozen New Yorkers who are homeless or formerly homeless, some of them sitting on their shelter beds on the Zoom call, called into a council committee hearing last week to speak in support of the bill.
“I refuse to go in a shelter because I refuse to lose my life,” said Rosetta Johnson, who sleeps in her car, told the committee hearing. “I don’t want to die because I’m homeless.”
When asked if she would move into a hotel room, Johnson noted that she would refuse if it were a shared room. “What if they murder me? Rob me? Beat me up? What if they have COVID and give it to me?” she said. “If someone offered me a hotel room by myself, absolutely I will go. Absolutely.”
Another person, Christophe Meier, explained that he normally slept in apartment lobbies, doorways, or on the subway, and he had been moved into a private hotel room by the Homeless Can’t Stay Home campaign after he contracted COVID-19. “I can’t say how much it means to have a place like this to get healthy and well,” he said, calling in from a hotel room in Manhattan.
The GoFundMe from the Homeless Can't Stay Home campaign has raised $58,000, which has paid for 27 New Yorkers to move into hotel rooms, for an average of $50 a night.
Josh Dean, the executive director of Human.NYC, a homeless advocacy group that is part of the campaign, told BuzzFeed News he hopes to keep those people, including Rice and Meier, in their hotel rooms for as many weeks as possible. Most of the rooms were booked on hotels.com, and hotels have not shown any concern about individuals who are homeless living there.
"It’s really frustrating — the city is not taking the action they need to," said Dean, who added the campaign has shown that moving people into hotels is an effective and easy plan to implement. "People should not be going into congregate settings, people should be going from the street only into their own space."
The city's Department of Homeless Services said that as of April 21, 639 New Yorkers who are homeless have tested positive for COVID-19, and 44 have died. DHS did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Dean noted that the department has been infuriatingly slow at moving people out of crowded shelters, failing to even meet its own small targets.
"We have the hotel rooms; we have federal funding that we can use for this, and the issues that they’re pointing to as reasons for doing this are all solvable problems," Dean said. "It’s a lack of political will, that’s it. That's the only thing preventing the city from doing the right thing here."
For the last four weeks, Victoria Wolf, who is 66 years old, has been waiting to move out of her homeless shelter in Queens, after the Department of Homeless Services declared the shelter too small to allow for social distancing and told all residents they would be moved.
The shelter has been her home since January 2016, following a devastating divorce and declining eyesight. Trying to stay 6 feet away from fellow residents to prevent infection has been nearly impossible.
In the shelter, she shares a bedroom with six other people. Since the stay-at-home order, she's been forced to spend most days just sitting on her bed. The shelter installed hand sanitizing stations at the front entrance and dining hall, but “all of them are out of Purell,” Wolf told BuzzFeed News.
"If you can get 3 feet from someone, you’re lucky," she said. “You’re shoulder to shoulder when you’re brushing your teeth in the bathroom. ... You almost bump people when you pass them in the hallway.”
Wolf, who said she once worked restoring antique textiles and clothing, is sympathetic that some luxury hotel owners may not want communities of people who are homeless moving into their facilities. She doesn't believe that every hotel is suitable for residents who are homeless.
"Why would any manager or hotel owner in their right mind want to take in homeless people who are technically mentally ill, some of which have not bathed in years?" asked Wolf, noting that the shelter system does not force residents to shower or clean themselves or their clothes.
"How do you clean the space from potential insects and other things when they leave?" she asked. "I can understand that the fancy hotels in Manhattan don't want anything to do with us."
On Tuesday, Wolf and the rest of her shelter were finally moved into a Days Inn in Brooklyn, a hotel she describes as a "travelers hotel" because it includes a small fridge and microwave. She's keen to try out the local markets and cook her own food again.
She's sharing a room with one other woman — they were allowed to select their roommate — whom she likes because she also has good hygiene and does not drink, smoke, or do drugs. On her first night, Wolf slept until 9:30 a.m., something that's impossible to do in a shelter. "It’s really nice to get a full night's sleep where you get a REM cycle or two," Wolf said.
Their room doors must be kept slightly ajar — their shelter bedrooms did not lock — and hotel staff had already hassled them about only bringing in one small suitcase, but she said she already felt happier and safer. She's glad to have Wi-Fi, her own television, and a window where they can "see the sky and the trees changing and the seasons."
"My god, I feel normal for the first time in a long time," said Wolf. "It's reminding us what home used to be."