The city is not obligated to place all homeless New Yorkers in a hotel during the coronavirus pandemic, a judge has ruled, rejecting a proposal that would have cost $76 million per month.
The Legal Aid Society had argued homeless people in large shelters faced dangerous health risks due to COVID. The public defenders group sought a court order that the city provide “single occupancy rooms” free of significant health risk to the homeless.
Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron said the scientific evidence did not exist to justify such a drastic measure.
“There is no competent medical, or unrebutted statistical, evidence that ‘congregate’ (i.e., group) shelter significantly, or even noticeably, raises the risk of contracting Covid-19,” Engoron wrote Monday.
The city has developed protocols to determine which homeless people should be assigned to large shelters, single hotel rooms or double-occupancy rooms. That procedure, which factored heavily in Engoron’s ruling, was made public after the suit was filed in October, Legal Aid attorney Joshua Goldfein said.
“To the extent that the court credited their efforts, it was efforts they were making in response to the lawsuit,” Goldfein said.
The city’s decision to house some homeless people in hotels — most notably on the Upper West Side — has sparked quality of life complaints and lawsuits. The judge declined to meddle in the city’s decision-making process regarding where homeless people should stay.
Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, the former deputy commissioner at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus at homeless shelters are working.
“To this Court, unrelated adults, many with major health problems, living and sleeping in large, dormitory-style rooms sounds like a perfect recipe for Covid-19 disaster, for super-spreading. Yet Doctor Daskalakis says not to worry, all is well; and, at this stage of the litigation, no evidence belies him,” Engoron wrote.
“This Court will not substitute its judgment for that of Doctor Daskalakis, and the statistical evidence that apparently backs him up.”
The judge scheduled further hearings to address issues of “compliance and enforcement” of coronavirus measures at Department of Homeless Services shelters.
“The City takes seriously its moral and legal obligation to provide safe housing and services to New Yorkers experiencing homelessness. The Court recognized that the extraordinary emergency relief was not warranted since DHS had already succeeded in minimizing the risk of contracting COVID-19 in shelter,” said Sharon Sprayregen of the city Law Department.
“Through the strategies used in its pandemic response, DHS has effectively kept COVID positivity rates lower than the citywide average, protecting shelter residents while they get back on their feet and saving lives. The City remains committed to these effective strategies while we’re combatting this pandemic.”
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