Beach 101st Shelter Closed Among COVID-19 Concerns

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 On the morning on Friday, May 22, all of the men of the 108-resident capacity homeless shelter at 226 Beach 101st Street were relocated, effectively deeming the location closed for the time being. According to the NYC Department of Homeless Services, the move comes as part of a citywide effort to allow for more social distancing in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. However, those from Rockaway Solutions Not Shelters (RSNS) are hoping the temporary closure may become more permanent.

On Friday morning, buses arrived at the shelter location to relocate the men to a commercial hotel. According to a letter provided by DHS, the men of the Black Veterans For Social Justice shelters, Salim in Brooklyn and the Amani House, Rockaway’s shelter, are being relocated to the Watson Hotel on W. 57th Street in Manhattan. According to DHS, the move was done as part of a citywide initiative to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among the homeless population.

In a statement to The Rockaway Times, Department of Social Services spokesperson Arianna Fishman explained, “At DSS, we’re continuing to implement tiered strategies and proactive initiatives to combat COVID-19, protect the New Yorkers who we serve, and ensure anyone who needs it is connected immediately to care or to isolation––and the use of commercial hotels is central to this work. Through these efforts, our essential staff have been able to help nearly 800 New Yorkers effectively isolate, resolve their conditions, and depart isolation. At the same time, through these strategies, we have also proactively relocated and continue to proactively relocate thousands of individuals from targeted shelters to commercial hotel settings out of an abundance of caution, including seniors and single adults from larger congregate locations, who are not sick at this time. As of this weekend, we can report that approximately 9,000 individuals––more than half of all the single adults experiencing homelessness who we serve––are now residing in commercial hotel settings, with that number increasing up to 10,000 this weekend, enabling these New Yorkers to more effectively isolate while also increasing social distancing at the shelters from which they moved.”

This mass effort was made clearer on Tuesday, May 26, as local elected officials Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato, Councilman Eric Ulrich and Senator Joe Addabbo announced a similar relocation for shelter residents in another part of their district, the Laurel Hill Shelter site in Ozone Park.

Regarding Rockaway’s shelter, the three officials released a joint statement saying, “Though Beach 101 Street remains a bad location for a homeless shelter, the Department of Homeless Services made the right decision by temporarily moving the residents to a different location. Giving each resident an individual room will help maintain social distancing and slow the spread of COVID-19 among both the shelter and non-shelter population. Frankly, they should have done it sooner. We will continue to work in the best interests of all our constituents to address concerns surrounding the shelter."

Since before the residents of the single-adult male shelter started moving in, in late February, it has been a cause of concern. The shelter had opened without following the typical process, bypassing the signing of a contract to fund the operation of the location. In recent weeks, the shelter has been a source of multiple 311 complaints from neighbors due to quality of life issues, and 911 calls, including an assault on a staff member of the shelter. Among some of the 311 complaints were for social distancing concerns as shelter residents were loitering around and near the building, while not wearing masks or social distancing, which New Yorkers are being advised to do during the coronavirus crisis in the hardest-hit city in the world. The set-ups for city shelters themselves have also caused concern. According to a letter from DHS, single adult shelters are comprised of dorms which contain eight to 12 beds per room, preventing social distancing from being possible within the shelter sites themselves. In an effort to reduce the density in these shelters, commercial hotels are being used as an option for relocation.

According to RSNS, in a conversation with DHS, they were told that a staff member at the Beach 101st shelter had also recently died due to COVID-19. However, it was not clear if this had any impact on the decision to move the shelter residents on Friday.

In a press release, RSNS said they were also told that the shelter location would be closed for at least six months to a year. DHS did not confirm any timeline for when the shelter residents would return to the Beach 101st Street location.

RSNS, which has been active in a battle against the shelter and the city’s practices regarding the homeless population, is hoping that the move may become more permanent.

"Our goal is to prevent any more people from being warehoused at this location," Democratic District Leader candidate and RSNS activist Torey Schnupp said.

In a press release, RSNS provided some examples of the work they’ve been doing in regard to the shelter since before it opened, and what has taken place since.

Schnupp, and other community members represented by attorney Mike Scala, filed a lawsuit to stop the shelter in January. They asserted the city violated the law by conducting an improper environmental review, by placing too many people at the premises for the intended services and by contracting with a financially delinquent service provider.

Following oral arguments, the Queens Supreme Court issued and subsequently extended a temporary restraining order halting all activity at the property. This delayed the planned opening of the shelter, which was also subject to contract review by the comptroller.

"We took the city to court and we won on more than one occasion," said Scala. "The city continued to take the law into their own hands. We have been beyond frustrated by this administration's failure to pursue sensible homelessness policies and refusal to respect the rules meant to protect everyone, and we've fought them every step of the way."

In March, the community members complained the city had bypassed lawful procedure by moving people into the facility before a contract was registered. The COVID-19 pandemic then effectively shut down the court system with the litigation ongoing and enabled the city to operate the shelter unencumbered.

With courts closed, RSNS’ lawsuit has not been able to move forward, but activists are hoping for a favorable outcome. They also hope that better options can be provided for the city’s homeless population, other than resorting to hotels, an effort the city was attempting to distance itself from prior to the coronavirus crisis.

"The practice of warehousing human beings has had grave consequences and has now forced homeless back into hotels, the very places the city was trying to phase out," Schnupp said. "This reinforces the urgent need to provide permanent, responsible and low-density affordable housing, along with supportive services, to suit the unique needs of the homeless population."

 By Katie McFadden

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