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Life Inside the Hotels for New York's Homeless

Residents generally seem to prefer 'homeless hotels' to regular shelters, even if city officials see them as a last resort.

by John Surico
Jun 28 2016, 3:30pm

The Pan Am Shelter in Queens, New York, a former hotel converted to a permanent homeless shelter. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Verve Hotel doesn't stick out. The tan, six-floor building in the Dutch Kills neighborhood of Queens is typical of the quiet industrial area, surrounded as it is by bodyshops, single-family homes, a rumbling elevated train, and hotels of a modernist sensibility, all glass exteriors and clean-cut balconies. During the school year, a handball court attracts teenagers as they head home from class just down the road.

The only way you might realize the Verve is a converted home for New York City's homeless population is if you spotted the metal detector in the lobby.

For decades, the city has used "welfare hotels" or "homeless hotels" to accommodate the astonishingly high number of poor and homeless in NYC—a figure that, in the years since the Great Recession, has spun wildly out of control, with nearly 60,000 men, women, and children sleeping on the streets or in shelters on any given night. The hotels—which vary from boutique to motor lodge types—are intended for temporary stays before residents move to more traditional shelters, if they can't find permanent housing. But as the homeless problem persists in the face of plenty of attention from City Hall, these potent symbols of gross income inequality have become some of the more desirable places to endure hard times in town.

"Converting former hotels into shelters is one of the many tools available to the City to temporarily shelter homeless New Yorkers, without reducing available affordable housing, as we work to prevent homelessness in the first place and transition homeless families and individuals back to permanent housing," Lauren Gray, the city's Department of Homeless Services' (DHS) senior advisor for communications, told VICE.

Over the last two years, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has converted seven commercial hotels into shelters. As of last month, 41 hotels were being used as shelters citywide. To combat the wave of chronic homelessness—a central plank in de Blasio's platform when he was elected in 2013—officials have revived a rental assistance program and offered back-paid rent to thousands of people. According to a federal survey, the number of people living on New York City's streets, outside the shelter system, dropped 12 percent in the past year, although the accuracy of that count is contested. Either way, the de Blasio administration has had to get creative to cope with a homelessness problem that hasn't been this bad since the Great Depression.

From the vantage point of public officials, hotels are not the most desirable option. First off, they come with a high price tag—it costs upwards of $5,000 a month to put one person up in one of them. And NIMBYism has plagued some locations, with incidents of violence raising serious security concerns.

"The goal is to use hotels less and less and eventually stop using hotels altogether," de Blasio said in February after a mother and her two children were stabbed to death in a Ramada Inn on Staten Island. "This particular location will not be used again," the mayor added. (It's worth noting that homeless hotels are occasionally made into permanent shelters, as the Pan Am in Queens was this past February.)

That same month, the Verve, which is a standalone shelter for single women, witnessed two violent episodes in two days. One woman threw a metal object at a roommate, head-butting a police officer when leaving an ambulance, while another angrily broke the metal detector at the entrance. According to one local official, several women were also allegedly stealing from a local pharmacy.

The Verve Hotel in 2009. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

On a recent afternoon, I spoke with 53-year-old Verve resident Maria Savvides. She immigrated from Colombia 30 years ago, and is currently enrolled in classes to improve her English while her son goes to school in nearby Astoria. When asked if she preferred to live at the hotel—where she'd been for a few months—instead of NYC's notoriously troubled regular shelters, she quickly nodded.

"Here feels a bit more like home."

Sure, there's the occasional outbreak from "crazy ladies," she admitted, and the food isn't exactly four-star quality. But the rooms are much nicer than that of a shelter, and even get cleaned once a week by in-house staff, she said. "We have a big bathroom that we share, and keep tidy," she added proudly. And Savvides said the women she shares a room with are all respectful; before she came to the Verve, she stayed at a hotel in Jamaica, Queens, that was marked by violence.

She left after five days.

In terms of local concerns, most neighbors I spoke to weren't even aware that the Verve was now a homeless shelter. Nor, for that matter, did they seem to care very much. Outside of the Landing, another hotel-shelter right by LaGuardia Airport, a businessman who owned a parking garage next door shrugged as if waiting for me to ask him something more interesting.

(DHS never responded to a request from VICE to tour one of New York's homeless hotels.)

According to Giselle Routhier, a policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, one of the most frequent complaints about hotel-shelters concerns lack of access to additional services. "Some hotels don't allow food, while others don't have case management services," she explained. "But it varies. Some have more complaints than others." (Routhier noted that food stamps are provided to homeless folks living at hotels that don't serve meals.)

"Some people prefer the more private space," she continued. "They like the congregate setting, and having bathrooms to themselves."

Her organization doesn't necessarily support the use of hotels as homeless shelters—instead, the Coalition is after long-term solutions to a nagging crisis. "We're always told that the hotels are temporary," Routhier said. "We want to focus on permanent housing, not hotels, so these individuals can get out, and we can reduce the numbers."


Check out the VICE News doc on cities effectively criminalizing homelessness across America.


About a 20-minute walk from my own apartment in Astoria is the Westway Motel, a shelter that sits right off the bustling Grand Central Parkway, next to a famous diner called the Jackson Hole. When I visited, the first thing I heard was children's laughter—the Westway is a family spot, so the backyard functions as a communal playground where kids can run and play.

Some windows were tied back by curtains; others, fully shut off from sunlight. I immediately thought of the story of Dasani Coates, a 12-year-old girl who lived in a Brooklyn family shelter, and the subject of a popular New York Times series in 2013. When Mayor de Blasio was inaugurated at City Hall shortly after the profile's publication, the child stood by his side, a symbol of the homeless crisis he faced immediately.

School had just let out when I came through, and a few teenagers were returning home to the hotel. One was Elijah, a 15-year-old who'd been living at the Westway for four months with his family. He told me the city actually runs pretty responsive services there, especially when it comes to helping them look for permanent housing. And the rooms are much more private than in the Brooklyn shelter he and his family called home for six months. "There's more of a sense of a community here," he said. "People know each other."

But even if it beats the typical shelter, Elijah and his family aren't content to stick around indefinitely.

"We're just trying to move out," he told me.

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