Retailers, fashion companies and others in key areas of Manhattan are becoming increasingly concerned over the burgeoning homeless population in their neighborhoods, which is adding another variable to the already challenging business conditions that have been brought on by the pandemic.
Affected by record-high homelessness before the pandemic, the relocation of members of the homeless community to Manhattan hotels has added to concerns over public safety, according to Business Improvement District leaders.
About 13,000 of the 17,000 single adult New Yorkers who rely on New York City-supported shelters and their contracted providers are staying in commercial hotels due to the pandemic. Before the coronavirus struck, there were more than 60,000 homeless New Yorkers living in facilities. Those figures do not include people staying in other shelters, such as those for domestic violence victims or runaway youths, as well as faith-based or private shelters.
The financial fallout from the COVID-19 crisis is evident in the absence of thousands of office workers, shuttered businesses, the dearth of domestic and international tourists and ongoing travel restrictions. Now retailers and other businesses are dealing with what was described as unsettling street scenes due partially to the influx of members of the homeless community. Further complicating the situation is the overnight shutdown of the New York City subway system, where many homeless spent the night, and the alleged response or lack thereof to homeless-related incidents by members of the New York City Police Department, according to nine executives with BIDs. That has led some people, including shoppers and business owners, to feel unsafe at times on the streets, BID leaders said.
Asked how the homeless factor is affecting shoppers, Dan Pisark, vice president of retail improvement at the 34th Street Partnership, said, “When they come, they’re not happy. In Midtown, and even out of Midtown on the West Side and the East Side, everyone I talk to [says] there are people who threaten or scare people on the street. So if they come, they’re going to have a negative impression and report that to people. When the hotel deals end, I think that will help enormously.”
Given the increasing concern about COVID-19 cases spiking, that is not expected to happen quickly. In some cases, what were initially 90-day deals have been extended through October “at best,” according to what Dan Biederman, who oversees the Bryant Park Corp. and the 34th Street Partnership, said he has been told by hotel representatives and “social service people in the city.”
All of the executives interviewed acknowledged the citywide health emergency and emphasized the need to provide a socially distanced environment for members of the homeless community during the pandemic. Several criticized city officials for not dispersing homeless individuals more evenly throughout the five boroughs of the city.
Representatives in New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s press office did not respond to requests for comment. As of mid-June, city officials had moved 9,500 homeless individuals into 63 commercial hotels in New York City as a result of the pandemic, according to a spokesman for the Department of Social Services-Department of Homeless Services. Seniors and single adults were among those relocated from larger shelters to the hotels to ensure social distancing. The strategy has saved lives and flattened the pandemic curve, with more than 95 percent of all cases experienced over the past four months-plus resolved, he said.
In addition to the 63 hotels, 76 other hotels in the city are still being used to house homeless individuals, as was the case before the pandemic in order to meet capacity needs. The DSS-DHS spokesman declined interview requests to discuss claims that neighborhoods are at times unsafe and how the dispersion of the homeless community may be affecting area businesses.
Describing the situation in Hell’s Kitchen and in the West 30s as “shocking at times,” one executive who also serves as a member of a Midtown community board said, “The issue is the concentration. The community board’s position has always been that we have no problem finding locations in the district for homeless people. The issue is that you can’t put 1,200 of them on one block and expect them to integrate into the community, and that people won’t notice that.”
Compounding the situation is the lack of notification by the city and that no community advisory councils were set up, when these shelters open up out-of-the-blue, he said.
Asked about how the presence of homeless individuals with emotional and addiction issues may be making some people feel unsafe due to the uneven dispersion of homeless individuals, Jacquelyn Simone, policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, said, “Every neighborhood has to do its part. This is a citywide challenge. It’s much easier for many New Yorkers to ignore the fact that we are in the midst of the worst homelessness crisis since the Great Depression. In some neighborhoods, people have been very aware of our homelessness and housing crisis for a long time, because their community members are being evicted and are becoming homeless, and they also have shelters in their neighborhoods. Other neighborhoods have been insulated from that reality. If people are outraged by the number of homeless people in their neighborhoods, what they should actually be outraged about is the number of homeless people. Period.”
Decades of research shows that even people with the most significant challenges are able to thrive if given permanent housing and the supportive services to succeed, she said. “We have just lacked the political will to invest in those resources that can prevent and end homelessness. Perhaps if people are now confronted with the reality of our persistent homelessness crisis more than they were previously, they should be contacting their elected officials and not just saying, ‘We don’t want homeless people sheltered here.’”
As of mid-June, 9,500 of the 10,000 available beds in the 63 commercial hotels that are being used by the city were occupied, the DSS-DHS reported. In addition, 3,500 single adults experiencing homeless continue to reside in the 76 other aforementioned hotels in the city.
A DSS-DHS spokesman said, “We remain committed to using innovative strategies like commercial hotels for isolation as long as we are combating COVID-19 and we continue to explore new strategies and policy responses as this situation unfolds.”
With 42 hotels in the Garment District, including six that are currently housing some members of the homeless community, the Garment District Alliance executive director Barbara Blair said it is logical that there would be clustering in the neighborhood. “All of my BID peers completely understand the objective of the city for social distancing, due to COVID-19. But you cannot just throw an incredibly damaged population into a cluster. It’s a mixed population — [former] Rikers [prison inmates], drug addicts, the mentally unstable and the homeless,” she said. “We have given up governance of our streets, when you have dramatic social conditions that you don’t have a remedy for and you just start warehousing people in hotels.”
As of the end of June, there were 1,336 beds being used to temporarily house the homeless in the garment center, according to the Garment District Alliance. Just east of Ninth Avenue, there were 294 beds being used at the Hilton Garden Inn on West 37th Street, and on West 36th Street, there were 200 at the SpringHill Suites and 318 beds at the DoubleTree Suites across the street. East of Sixth Avenue, 141 people were staying at the Best Western, 151 people were staying at the Hampton Inn and 232 people were at the Kixby Hotel. A representative for both the Hampton Inn and DoubleTree said that “she did not think those numbers were right.”
Having appealed to several city and state officials — including de Blasio, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Manhattan Borough president Gale Brewer, among others — Blair said, “In their defense, they don’t have a solution, but that’s your job. You have to come up with legislation. You have to enforce laws that say, ‘This behavior is not OK on the streets if you are going to live on the streets…’ Your footprint can only be 36-inches-square. You can’t take up eight by 10 feet along the side of the building. You can’t have furniture and mattresses.“
A spokeswoman for the DoubleTree and Hampton Inn locations declined to discuss the impact on the neighborhood and on-site social services. She said, “These hotels are open to New York City to help with the pandemic. Anything that we can do to help New York City to fight this and get up back on our feet, the hotels are there to support it.”
A Kixby Hotel spokeswoman and a Best Western spokesperson declined comment and representatives at Hilton Garden Inn and SpringHill Suites did not respond to interview requests.
From Blair’s perspective, greater support from institutions is needed. She said, “These are dramatically ill people — we get that. But just saying you have the right to behave in any way that you want to in the public realm, and you have all these rights…we share these sidewalks with the general population. There has to be some regulation about what is allowable. It shouldn’t just be a free-for-all. That’s the challenge of government, trying to figure out how to care for the people in your society who require care because they can’t care for themselves. I think it’s a failure of government from the feds all the way down.”
An “egotist when it comes to New York City,” Blair said, “We’ve got the best and the brightest, so how about you figure it out? You be the national model. The people who are living here and working here [in New York] are feeling really hopeless.”
Jeffrey LeFrancois, executive director of the Meatpacking District Management Association, agreed. “It is a glaring policy failure of the city that we are in the situation that we are in right now. We are not providing proper support and services for these people. We’re thrusting homeless populations onto service providers who are not prepared. It’s not the fault of the service provider. It’s the city having policies for decades that do not work.”
While the Meatpacking District has seen a slight uptick in homeless people on the street, the situation is not nearly as severe as it is in Midtown and in Hell’s Kitchen, he said. “There also has been a noticeable uptick in panhandling, since everything is outside [referring to dining and some outdoor shopping]. That’s not just in the Meatpacking District but across the city,” LeFrancois said.
As is the case with some other neighborhoods, the fallout from the pandemic has resulted in the closings of a few Meatpacking District restaurants and a number of retailers in recent weeks. Free People on Ninth Avenue and Levi’s on West 14th Street have shuttered, Le Francois said.
Nationwide, there are 3.5 million people who experience homelessness throughout the year, with an estimated 500,000 people homeless on any given night. Those figures are conservative, due to how difficult it is to count homeless people and the varying definitions of the term that are used by the federal government, according to National Coalition for the Homeless executive director Donald Whitehead Jr.
Los Angeles is the U.S. city with the largest outdoor homeless population, followed by New York City. Some economists predict that the financial fallout from the pandemic may increase homelessness in the U.S. by up to 45 percent, due to the upswing in evictions and job losses, Whitehead said. “The hotel issue is just a puddle in a tsunami of poverty and homelessness that is coming down the pike, if we don’t do something about it quickly.”
Not privy to the adequacy of on-site support in New York City hotels — or in other temporary facilities in other states where homeless individuals are staying during the pandemic, Whitehead spoke of the need for a more holistic approach. “We’re advocating for the country to become more responsive to the whole person — not just from a housing standpoint, but with all of the supportive services necessary for people to have long-term success. And the government has not been supportive of that to this point,” he said.
The absence of thousands of office workers from Herald Square to Bryant Park has made the presence of severely emotionally disturbed people, alcoholics, drug addicts and panhandlers on the streets more noticeable in recent months, according to Biederman. The situation became “catastrophic” after the hotel deal was added, he said. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for street conditions. These people, who came in from shelters to Manhattan hotels, are deeply troubled and are shooting up drugs on the street. And they’re everywhere. There is no one in my universe of 34th Street or Bryant Park who hasn’t noticed the decline in street conditions,” Biederman said. “If you ask me what‘s been the worst thing that has happened since March 13, [when much of the city went into lockdown] I would say the hotel deals.”
As of now, all of the area’s 350 stores are open, with one or two exceptions. Pisark contends that companies, especially larger ones, should start bringing employees back to work. “First, they should bring back their people. Stop working from home even though things are not ideal. We need their presence and their business,” he said. “Continue to report street conditions that are not conducive to those people being comfortable.”
Although NYPD officials are still responding to more severe situations, “They are not doing what they did before because they’ve been criticized so much. Individual cops are being very cautious,” Pisark said. “But they’re doing something.”
Asked to respond to claims that NYPD officers are not required to respond to homeless-related issues to the degree that they did before the pandemic, as well as allegedly standing down regarding the issue or that individual officers are cautiously approaching homeless situations on a case-by-case basis due to the social justice issues of recent months, a NYPD spokesperson deferred comment to city hall.
Acknowledging that the homeless will not be able to stay in hotels indefinitely since COVID-19-related government funding will eventually run out, “Congress is at a standstill“ and communities do not have enough resources to deal with the situation themselves, Whitehead said additional funding is needed.
Some homeless people have steady jobs, including ones as essential workers, but have been priced out of New York City’s disproportionately expensive real estate market, Simone said. “Even having a stable job is not enough to pay rent. This pandemic has really shown how many people were living paycheck-to-paycheck. We shouldn’t be angry at the individuals. We should be angry at the systems that have been failing New Yorkers for far too long. We need to channel this frustration into policy change.”
She continued, “Also, we are in this moment of long overdue systemic racism right now in our city and in our country. We need to recognize that homelessness is one manifestation of systemic racism. The people who are being vilified for perhaps taking a smoke break outside of one of the hotels that is literally the only place to have a safe respite from the streets and from dealing with the pandemic [while] exposed to the elements. Many of these people are people of color and that is the direct result of racist housing policies, racist criminal justice policies and racist policies over the course of decades, if not centuries. We cannot simultaneously be saying that Black Lives Matter, and also say, ‘We don’t want these Black people in our neighborhood, because we’re assuming that they‘re dangerous or scary.’ There is an inherent hypocrisy with this. We need to instead be looking at these systemic issues. Moving people into hotels is a great first step in an emergency response. People in hotels want permanent housing.”
One downtown BID leader, who requested anonymity, said he, like other BIDs, is working with the local community board, NYPD and DSS-DHS to try to find solutions.
“It hasn’t made lives easier for the business and residential community — that’s for sure. That’s not to say that it’s at the same level of the pandemic or the spillover effects from the social unrest. During the protests over George Floyd’s murder, there was looting and vandalism that occurred up and down the stretch in early June. It’s complicated matters for some businesses for sure,” said the BID leader, adding that a number of businesses have reported attempted break-ins and residential property owners are having a difficult time filling vacancies since prospective tenants have said they don’t feel safe on the sidewalks.
A few New York City-based designers described the homelessness issue as “very sad” and “heartbreaking.” Although they declined to discuss the current situation, two emphasized that humanity should always be the priority over any neighborhood concerns.
While homelessness has not become more of an issue with his 150 or so retailers — 50 of which are currently vacant — Mark Dicus, executive director of the SoHo Broadway Initiative, said city officials should be thinking about better ways to serve that community. Not only an issue for retailers but for people coming back to the city, Dicus said, “We need to provide good services for our homeless population. Having our streets full of individuals sitting on the sidewalk panhandling should not be viewed as a success. We need these individuals to get services, to get to a home and to become productive members of society.”