New York Daily News: Chris Sommerfeldt – The number of single adults living in homeless shelters across the five boroughs reached an all-time high during the pandemic, likely contributing to a disproportionate spike in coronavirus deaths among that population, according to a new study.
The study, conducted by the Coalition for the Homeless advocacy group and provided exclusively to the Daily News before its Wednesday release, found that the number of single adults sleeping in New York City shelters rose precipitously throughout last year, reaching a new record of 20,822 on average every night this past February.
Through the same reporting period, the COVID-19 death rate for sheltered single adults was 54 percent higher than the citywide average, the study says.
Giselle Routhier, a policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, said many homeless single adults suffer from underlying health conditions and acknowledged that may have partially contributed to the high coronavirus death rate.
But Routhier also said the record-high shelter occupancy played a part, especially since single homeless adults are typically placed in congregate, dorm-style shelters where social distancing is difficult.
“That means more people were at risk,” Routhier said in an interview. “We saw how that impacted them in these really devastating mortality numbers.”
At least 120 homeless people died from COVID-19 in the city before July 2020, most of them single adults, and many more are expected to have perished in proceeding months, according to the study.
By contrast, the coalition found that homeless families — who are typically placed in contained shelter units where social distancing is easier — had a COVID-19 death rate that was 8% less than the citywide average.
Additionally, the study says the number of families living in homeless shelters declined significantly over the past 12 months — a positive trend Routhier credited to pandemic-related eviction moratoriums and other relief programs.
“The system is set up better for homeless families,” she said, adding there’s no equivalent safety net for homeless single adults, who often cycle between shelters, hospitals and incarceration.
The death rate among single adults would’ve been lower if the city had done a better job at moving those individuals out of crowded congregate shelters and into more spacious facilities, such as hotels with pandemic-related vacancies, especially between March and July 2020, the coalition’s report argued.
The group pointed fingers at Mayor de Blasio, charging that his administration was more keen on catering to the wealthy than the homeless.
“Mayor de Blasio exhibited an alarming lack of leadership and moral grounding,” the study says, referencing an instance last fall when, in response to complaints from local residents, Hizzoner ordered the removal and shelter reassignment of 300 homeless single adults who were living temporarily at an Upper West Side hotel.
Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Homeless Services, disputed the coalition’s assertions and said the de Blasio administration’s “temporary emergency use” of commercial hotels for homeless people “saved lives during this pandemic.”
McGinn also noted that New York City’s homeless population as a whole — accounting for single adults, families and other categories — has actually decreased during the pandemic while its COVID-19 infection rates stayed below the local average.
“While there is always more work to be done, our strategies are taking hold and we remain committed to building on this progress, which is more important than ever in these difficult times,” McGinn said.
The coalition also singled out Gov. Cuomo for criticism, saying that he exacerbated the city’s problems during the pandemic by deploying police to kick homeless people off subway trains between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. every night without offering any alternative accommodations except congregate shelters.
“The response by the governor has been absolutely callous,” said Routhier.
Ultimately, the coalition argued homelessness in the city will not subside beyond the pandemic unless local officials start thinking about it as “a housing crisis and not a homelessness crisis.”
“This mindset has fueled decades of shortsighted policies and a reflexive retreat into simplistic, often ideological attempts to manage the problem, rather than solve it,” the coalition’s report states. “The cost of this failure has been massive in both its human and monetary quotient.”