neon hotel sign

(Photo by Joe_Potato / Getty Images)

When COVID-19 began its devastating path through the United States in early 2020, it took a disproportionate toll on the poor. Among those at greatest risk were people living in congregate shelters or outdoor encampments.

To limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, a number of cities moved shelter dwellers into single or shared rooms in lower-priced commercial hotels. With many hotels vacant during this time, New York City relocated some 9,000 people into rooms, while Los Angeles relocated 4,000.  Several other cities followed suit.

Rolled out rapidly as the epidemic was prompting businesses and institutions to curtail in-person operations, the FEMA-funded hotel initiative had numerous benefits, according to new research in the Journal of Social Distress and Homelessness conducted by the NYU Silver School of Social Work’s Deborah Padgett. The qualitative study, titled “From the streets to a hotel,” is based on in-depth interviews with 13 homeless persons who stayed in private hotel rooms to protect them from COVID for several months.     

The uniformly positive responses underscore that the acute crisis of homelessness can be reduced, and the impact on individuals eased, when federal, state and local resources, local political will, and above all, affordable housing, are mobilized. “If today was a bad day, I can get up in the morning and I shower and it’s a new day,” said one of the respondents to the survey. “When you have that, you get back so much back, mentally and emotionally.”

And in cities such as Milwaukee and Houston, notes Padgett, coordination and a unified “housing first” strategy have given rise to steep reductions in the numbers of unhoused, sometimes even without the full conversion of former hotels into affordable housing that other cities have begun since the height of the coronavirus epidemic. 

But the sharp turn to using hotel rooms during the COVID crisis provides an impetus for many other cities and states, and even the federal government, to put the provision of stable housing at the center of stemming homelessness for the long term, the study suggests. 

 “To ignore this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restructure our response to homelessness would be to deny our most marginalized citizens the chance to regain a life in a home,” writes Padgett, who is a nationally recognized for her scholarship concerning the estimated half-a-million people experiencing homelessness in the United States.

NYU News asked Padgett—coauthor of the influential book Housing First: Ending Homelessness, Changing Systems and Transforming Livesabout the recent study and the policy implications of the hotel-room initiative. The study was conducted with NYU Silver PhD student Lynden Bond along with Christina Wusinich, a graduate student in the Counseling Psychology Program at NYU Steinhardt.

How did COVID affect the number of homeless? 

It is difficult to say because the annual “Point in Time” count required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was suspended after 2020 due to the pandemic. While estimates of numbers of homeless persons have risen in New York City, Los Angeles, and other places, it is difficult to attribute this to a specific cause beyond an urgent shortage of affordable housing.  And when it comes to COVID and mortality, the disease surely took its toll, but fortunately there were no “super-spreader” outbreaks in the shelters.

How did cities that traditionally relied on congregate beds respond to the outbreak?

Many sought to de-densify shelters and outdoor encampments to prevent COVID. There was considerable moving around of shelter residents—into vacant hotels primarily. Persons sleeping outdoors were largely left alone, although clearances of encampments to prevent COVID spread were also initiated. The federally mandated eviction moratorium was implemented simultaneously, also in response to the pandemic. This moratorium undoubtedly prevented homelessness for many families and individuals.

So the use of hotels started early?

Yes, the need to act quickly was undeniable; the moves began in March 2020. Knowing that crowded homeless shelters were prime locations for COVID outbreaks, city authorities around the U.S. took advantage of federal guarantees of Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to pay for transfers of shelter residents to vacant hotel rooms. The funding was guaranteed until the end of 2020.

With the majority of homeless persons living in shelters—the city has a right-to-shelter law—New York City became the largest renter of hotel rooms. In contrast, Los Angeles County had a like number of unhoused individuals, but the vast majority were living outdoors in encampments and on LA’s “Skid Row.” True, LA did not have a legal right to shelter, but the visible urgency of homelessness in California turned it into a statewide concern, and Governor Gavin Newsom was successful in obtaining both federal and state funds for his signature program known as “Project Roomkey.” That measure, launched in June 2020, started by providing emergency hotel rooms for temporary use. It has since funded the conversion of 12,500 apartments, through the purchase of hotels, for people exiting homelessness.

Such endeavors certainly help, but with an estimated 160,000 homeless statewide in California, far more will need to happen to end, or even seriously reduce, homelessness in the state. Meanwhile, NYC is mired in a bureaucratic status quo of shelter-dependent policies to stem homelessness, with no change in sight.

For your study, how did you find people to interview?

The newly housed hotel residents were identified through street outreach by an advocacy group familiar with our research interests (and raising money for an independent hotel-based initiative for the unhoused). We sought permission from them as well as from the hotel residents, who were staying in hotels in midtown and downtown Manhattan and in Queens. 

You wrote that their reactions to their hotel stays, then in progress, were very positive.

They marveled at having a private bathroom, TV, microwave, air conditioning, phone, and comfortable bed. Basic things we take for granted, like preparing a meal, taking a bath, watching television, sleeping soundly, and enjoying privacy were deeply appreciated. They saw improvements in health, through restful sleep, eating more nutritiously, and keeping clean; in mental health, through not worrying about police sweeps or violent attacks on the streets or in shelters; and in having the stability to gain access to entitlements such as SNAP and Medicaid, as well as job training.

Did hotel residency come with conditions?

The advocacy organization that sponsored our study participants followed “housing first” principles, so strings attached were minimal, using a low-barrier approach that works best, in my opinion, compared to the more prevalent demands of rule-following. The individuals we studied did have access to an experienced case worker if they needed assistance, but most were street-hardened and independent, such that they did not need intensive services. 

Who paid for the hotel stays? How cost-effective were they?

While our advocacy ally raised private donations through a Go Fund Me campaign, the overwhelming majority of hotel residents were from city homeless shelters. New York City drew on FEMA funds intended to protect against COVID outbreaks in crowded shelters. Of course, it is possible that some drew on local funds as well. At the same time, a study in Seattle found fewer high-cost hospital and emergency room visits, fewer arrests and better physical and mental health among the hotel residents. Even if hotels were paid for locally, rather than from the federal government, the costs would likely be lower than those associated with shelters or the streets.

With the disappearance of the FEMA money, what has happened to this concept of moving homeless people into hotel rooms?

For reasons I cannot fathom, the city re-transferred thousands of hotel residents back to shelters in June 2020, giving no explanation for this cruel reversal of policy.

In California, by contrast, several locales have sought to convert hotels or motels into apartments, but overall, hotels are no longer being used extensively. Some have been refurbished and returned to hosting travelers. Others have gone bankrupt and are awaiting buyers. Most recently, some hotels are being used for the influx of asylum seekers and immigrants—their numbers strain New York's capacity to offer shelter to all who seek it. 

The modest progress shown by California’s Project Roomkey reflects a commitment to housing rather than shelters, which is a far better use of public funds. The hurdles are considerable, among them, cost overruns and delays due to zoning laws, environmental impact statements, and other bureaucratic encumbrances. But such barriers can be reduced if political will and inter-agency cooperation become possible. 

Which cities have been able to overcome the typical obstacles?

Milwaukee and Houston are among the most recent ones to house record numbers of homeless persons. They have done so through close coordination of all interested parties — politicians, landlords, building maintenance and code violation offices, non-profit agencies, etcetera. Working together is the key to success.

And what of the 13 former hotel residents interviewed in depth for the study? What does the future hold for them?

The future of these individuals is uncertain and requires follow-up. The ones we spoke with were able to obtain housing vouchers from the city government after vocal advocacy by the organization that sponsored their stays. But how many were able to get a landlord to accept the voucher remains to be seen. 

Still, the overall message we heard from them was a glimmer of hope to find employment, reconnect with lost family members, and stay clean and sober. Any major changes are a bit too much to expect, given how far they have fallen in suffering from exposure, poor health, and traumatic experiences. But having stable housing is first and foremost.

To your mind, what type of research still remains to be done?

Additional research would ideally track the shifting demographics of homelessness— more aged and physically ailing—and how to change support services accordingly, including palliative care. At the other end of the age continuum are homeless children and their families and the need to expand rapid-rehousing programs to end their plight early on, or even to prevent it. In any research, my top priority is to learn from homeless persons in their own words.