Shelter residents lock themselves in hotel rooms as eviction begins in Hell’s Kitchen

Individuals experiencing homelessness who have been taking temporary shelter at a hotel on East 40th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue were scheduled to be removed from the premises Friday morning, July 2, but some refused to go.

The mood outside the three-star Four Points by Sheraton hotel was one of bitter defeat as unhoused men lugged rucksacks and towed suitcases onto the sidewalk, where a school bus waited to transport them to congregate shelters. The rear of the vehicle swiftly became jam-packed with garbage bags and duffle bags as the belongings were haphazardly heaved into the bus.

Bags are tied and twisted. Photo by Dean Moses
Clothing is dumped on the sidewalk. Photo by Dean Moses

The removal comes after the shelter residents spent much of the COVID-19 pandemic inside the hotel — one of five locations in Hell’s Kitchen being emptied as the city closes its temporary hotel housing program.

During the dawn of the novel coronavirus, many rough sleepers were temporarily housed inside unused and vacated hotels, which created a rift in the community. Now that virus infection rates are at an all-time low and tourism is once again returning to the Big Apple, hotels plan to once again house city visitors. However, some shelter residents say they’re being moved to the city outskirts, taking them far from work and their support systems, while also putting them at risk to the COVID-19 variants.

A man waits with his belongings outside the hotel. Photo by Dean Moses

Some 25 shelter residents of Four Points by Sheraton are locking themselves in their rooms and refusing to be moved again, according to a source close to the individuals.

“I am locking myself in, I have squatters’ rights. I can’t come out or they will try to force me out,” Anthony Campbell told amNewYork Metro via phone.

Being locked in, Campbell said he is afraid, alone, and at a loss as to what to do next. The hotels provided Campbell and others a sense of stable security, much like transitional housing; however, now that it is all being swept away in a tidal wave of removals, Campbell feels like he is caught in the undertow.

The back of the bus is quickly filled. Photo by Dean Moses

“I also tried to reach out to some of my comrades that decided to protest with me, but I am getting no response,” Campbell explained. “Maybe I’m alone at this, but in order to fight homelessness someone has to take a stand.”

Many of those being moved allege that the city had well over 16 months to help them find permanent, if not transitional, housing but instead, they say they’re being placed on the back burner of recovery. 

However, according, to a spokesperson for NYC Department of Social Services-Department of Homeless Services (NYC DSS-DHS), in 2020 alone city agency staff assisted 19,000 New Yorkers in moving out of shelter to permanent housing.  

“Over the past year-plus, our invaluable frontline staff, provider partners, and outreach teams have gone above and beyond amid unprecedented circumstances to protect and support the New Yorkers experiencing homelessness who we serve. This includes adapting quickly at the height of the pandemic and temporarily relocating thousands of individuals from shelters to commercial hotels to provide them with the same protections from the virus as individuals who were fortunate enough to be able to socially distance at home during this crisis,” a NYC DSS-DHS spokesperson said in a statement. 

A man brings out his belongings. Photo by Dean Moses

Additionally, while many homeless individuals have voiced their concerns over exposure to the coronavirus, DSS-DHS shared that efforts keep homeless individuals off the streets while also administering nearly 19,600 vaccine doses to clients and staff so far has helped to flatten the pandemic curve. 

“This relocation strategy worked, flattening the curve last year, stopping the spread of COVID-19, keeping rates low since then, and saving lives. Now that health indicators are headed in the right direction and State OTDA has issued new statewide guidance on congregate shelter operations, we are phasing out this temporary program and returning to shelter, as we have said we would throughout the pandemic. Because this process involves moving thousands of individuals, it will take some time and won’t be done overnight, but working in close partnership with communities and provider partners we anticipate completing this process by approximately the end of July,” according to a NYC DSS-DHS spokesperson.  

On the other hand, former City Council District 3 candidate Marni Halasa has been advocating alongside shelter residents for several months, and she believes that now more than ever the voices of the homeless are being heard as they demanded the right to self-determination, the right to be safe, and have dignified permanent housing.

“I am extremely disappointed with Mayor de Blasio who is knowingly putting vulnerable people at risk. He knows that only 14% of shelter residents are vaccinated, so this is really sending thousands of vulnerable New Yorkers to the hospital or even death. His callous indifference is an outrage and he should resign immediately,” Halasa told amNewYork Metro.

She feels the city should purchase the empty hotels and office buildings and re-purpose them for vulnerable individuals. 

“What the city should do is take all the empty hotels and office buildings and re-purposed them for low income and supportive housing so we can solve the homelessness crisis once and for all. It will take care of people in need and also give us healthier communities. This is what all New Yorkers want and deserve, and we’re not going to stand for anything less,” Halasa added. 

The first bus pulls away as shelter residents look on. Photo by Dean Moses