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Hotel for the homeless

Effective Compassion | New York City wants to stop renting rooms for thousands of unsheltered people
by Rob Holmes
Posted 5/16/18, 01:54 pm

Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s commitment to turning the tide on homelessness, New York City taxpayers continue footing hotel bills for thousands of homeless people.

The city has a rare “right to shelter” legal mandate that requires it to give temporary emergency housing to any who are eligible and ask for help. Putting homeless people in hotels is a stopgap measure to keep people off the street when shelters fill up. New York City has more than 60,000 homeless people, a third of whom are children.

In southwest Queens, adjacent to John F. Kennedy International Airport, only two area hotels are not being used as temporary housing for the homeless, the Queens Chronicle reported. Since late April, the city’s Department of Homeless Services began renting 100 of the Sheraton JFK Airport Hotel’s 150 rooms, making it more likely for guests to meet a homeless person than a businessperson there.

Former New York City Councilman and current state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr., a Democrat, represents the Queens district where the Sheraton is located. He derided the city’s spending of $1.1 billion over the next three years to house people in commercial hotels. Addabbo told The Forum it runs counter to the mayor’s own plan to phase out hotel housing by 2023 and “to keep residents in the boroughs they called home when possible.”

Hotel housing actually violates New York City code, which stipulates kitchens must adjoin housing. And providers and nonprofit organizations who pay the room bills report lengthy delays before the city pays them back, sometimes years later.

Last year, de Blasio proposed building 25 to 90 new homeless shelters by 2022, but only 11 have been built so far. He also called for another 300,000 affordable housing units. Landing Road Residence is one bud of promise. An affordable apartment complex in the Bronx, it generates subsidy money for housing by charging rents ranging from $470 for a studio apartment—available only to formerly homeless—to $1,000 for a two-bedroom unit. The building includes a 200-bed, dorm-style shelter for men on the lower floors. Business Insider touted it as a proof-of-concept facility the city can use to help generate interest in similar ventures.

Facebook/No Shelter on 682 Vermont Facebook/No Shelter on 682 Vermont A protest against a proposed homeless shelter in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles

Koreatown protests new homeless shelter

The mayor and city council of Los Angeles declared an emergency shelter crisis last month, taking advantage of a new California law that allows opening temporary homeless shelters on city-owned or -leased land.

The council’s motion said the declaration would give faith-based organizations and nonprofit groups “the right to provide shelter without an onerous and costly process.” And the emergency declaration would also allow providers to skirt restrictions on the maximum number of beds and how many people a shelter may serve.

The present number of shelter beds available in Los Angeles—7,646—falls woefully short of the official 2017 count of 25,237 unsheltered homeless people in the city. The city’s 2018-2019 budget would create a $20 million fund to construct emergency shelters citywide as part of the mayor’s larger “A Bridge Home” initiative.

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposed site for the first of the new shelters, the Koreatown district, exploded with resistance to the idea. Residents there protested the plan Sunday and gathered more than 7,300 signatures in a single week through an online petition, MyNewsLA.com reported. The Korean American Coalition issued the petition and said the decision and efforts to combat homelessness “deserve the complete input of all voices” in the community. The local protest included a Facebook group “No Shelter on 682 Vermont,” a name taken from the proposed address of the new shelter.

Los Angeles code only allows the shelter crisis declaration to stand for one year, and City Council President Herb Wesson—who represents Koreatown—said any shelter would be open no longer than three years. He made a video subtitled in Korean as a rebuttal to the protest, saying “there is a lot of misinformation” and underscoring the needs of 400 unsheltered people in encampments in Koreatown. —R.H.

Getty Images/Photo by Kayana Szymczak Getty Images/Photo by Kayana Szymczak A homeless woman takes shelter in Boston’s Copley Place Mall in January 2015.

Courts test Massachusetts shelter laws

Massachusetts has the nation’s only state-level right-to-shelter law for families. Like New York City, the state spends a huge amount to house homeless families in hotels: $180 million per year. That translates to renting an average of 3,500 rooms each day. 

The state’s hotel housing practice dates back to the 1990s, when it was seen as a temporary measure to help families with kids in school. This week the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard a challenge to official efforts to reduce the number of families housed in hotels. Since taking office in 2015, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has worked to increase available shelters and decrease the state’s reliance on hotel housing. American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts attorney Ruth Bourquin said the change in housing policy violated both the state right-to-shelter law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, The Salem News reported.

In a previous case last September, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Wilkins ruled the state must accommodate families with disabilities in hotels if available shelters were not equipped to meet their needs. Moving such families out of hotels into more permanent housing would prove too “disruptive,” he said.

Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General Samuel Furgang cited the state’s expanded number of available shelters and said “warehousing of families in hotels” is not ideal. He told the court the state wanted “to keep [the families] in a much more appropriate structure that is stable, that offers services.” —R.H.

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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