(Photo: David Shankbone via WikiCommons)

“The East Village has become unsafe,” tweeted @kernie_sanders in a message to Mayor Bill de Blasio in late June. “I have never seen such desperation.” 

Already estimated at over 1,000 prior to Covid-19, the homeless population in the East Village and Lower East Side has only grown since the pandemic began. The Department of Homeless Services and the Coalition for the Homeless haven’t yet calculated a number, but hope to generate more data in the coming months. In the meantime, East Village residents have noticed an uptick in the number of unsheltered individuals. 

“The homeless population has increased substantially with new faces moving in, and it’s heartbreaking and unnecessary” tweeted a self-described East Villager.

Given that Black and Latinx New Yorkers are disproportionately affected by homelessness (57 percent of heads of household in shelters are Black, 32 percent are Hispanic/Latinx), one might wonder why the East Village– of all the predominantly white, gentrified neighborhoods in Manhattan– is particularly susceptible to homelessness, especially in this current moment. Local aid organizations point to several factors that might be making the neighborhood a hub. Many of its outdoor spaces, particularly Tompkins Square Park, have historically housed up to hundreds of homeless residents over the years. As the neighborhood gentrified and shelterless residents were pushed out of parks, subway stations became a popular overnight option. Since May 6, those stations have been closed between the hours of 1am to 5am, limiting options for those seeking cover.

“We’re more than a month into the subway’s nightly shutdown, and people have not been given a better place to go,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless. “Many people who used to be hidden from view are now above ground.” 

The East Village and surrounding area have been long-standing resources for homeless New Yorkers, ranking number three on the City Council’s list of Manhattan districts with the most shelters. There are approximately 15 active shelters and resource centers between the Villages, which is more than in uptown neighborhoods in Manhattan, with the exception of Harlem. In the ’90s, when East Village housing costs began to skyrocket and the 300 or so homeless individuals residing in Tompkins Square Park were forced to move, shelters like Bowery Mission and Nazareth Housing were integral in ameliorating the crisis and offering people a place to stay without traveling too far across the city. 

The Bowery Mission has been prolific in aiding the city’s homeless population since the late 19th century. While it now boasts several different facilities across Manhattan, its most notable is probably its namesake, located right on the Bowery in the East Village. 

In March, the New York Times reported that the Bowery Mission would no longer be taking on Code Blue residents (meaning people who sought shelter when the weather dropped to freezing temperatures), of which it had the capacity to house 150. The decision was made prior to quarantine laws taking effect, yet the Bowery campus never reopened its doors to those seeking shelter, instead focusing its efforts on offering showers, food, and basic medicine to shelterless individuals. 

“People who were relying on certain shelters or drop-in centers that are now closed, or no longer felt safe in certain shelters are now more visible to people in that neighborhood,” said Simone. 

Lack of safety in shelters also drives people to sleep outside. While the Bowery Mission’s overnight closures certainly helped make the crisis more obvious, there’s also the factor that sleeping en masse in a crowded room actually exacerbates the risk of Covid-19.

The near 20,000 sheltered individuals in the city are distributed across just 150 shelters, making social distancing measures next to impossible to execute. The mortality rate among sheltered New Yorkers was 61 percent higher than the average New York City rate, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. 

“We have a lot of people who did not feel safe in the current shelter model. This was the case before Covid. And now, with the risk of the virus, there were certainly people who might have left a congregate shelter facility because they did not feel safe there, or they were on the streets beforehand but now they definitely don’t want to enter a shelter because they are afraid of catching Covid-19.” 

Additionally, homeless individuals are more likely to fall under the category of “at risk” of contracting the virus from a medical standpoint. Many homeless New Yorkers are diabetic or immuno-compromised. As of June 23, 96 had died from Covid-19 complications. 

 The Center for Urban Community Services didn’t have enough PPE for the homeless outreach and supportive housing programs it runs across New York, including in the East Village. “It was incredibly stressful in the beginning,” said Mary Taylor, Chief Communications Officer. “We’ve realized how important it is to have a stockpile. We also had to figure out a way to keep the individuals and families we serve in congregate shelters and supportive housing safe. Part of that meant PPE and that also meant finding ways for some of our staff to work remotely.” 

Most people become homeless due to a lack of affordable housing options. While Gov. Cuomo’s eviction moratorium seemed like a strong preventative measure against an aggravated homelessness crisis, it wouldn’t have stopped people from abandoning their homes out of desperation.

“People who didn’t have a formal lease, day laborers who were working off of the books, people who didn’t know what their rights were as far as illegal lockout maybe didn’t know they were protected and might have just left if they were told to leave,” said Simone.

Not helping things was the fact that rents in the East Village never significantly dropped despite the larger crashing economy. According to the MNS Manhattan Rental Market Report, the average rent for a non-doorman studio in the East Village was $2,230 in June, just $256 less than it was in February and just $182 less than it was during the same period last year. While many buildings in the area instated a rent-freeze, tenants had to stomach the knowledge that they would still be forced to pay their rent later on amidst a volatile job market. Additionally, homeless New Yorkers come from every zip code in the city, meaning that even those who were forced out of housing elsewhere may have migrated to the East Village due to its reputable shelters and housing facilities. 

Continuing a concerning long-term trend, the city’s response to homelessness during the pandemic has been slow at best. A week ago, the City Council slashed 40 percent of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s funding, limiting the ability to generate more long-term affordable housing options for homeless and low-income residents. Going forward, the most immediate tool in protecting homeless New Yorkers will be offering them single occupancy hotel rooms that remain empty due to an indefinite halt on tourism. This has already begun with around 13,000 shelterless people residing in hotels across the city, yet thousands of rooms still remain uninhabited due to concerns from certain City Council members that the plan was too financially ambitious. After the vote to introduce the hotel placement bill was postponed indefinitely, a campaign called The Homeless Can’t Stay Home was created in an effort to fund hotel rooms for every homeless New Yorker in need of safe, isolated shelter. 

The campaign launched a GoFundMe page and compiled stories of homeless New Yorkers like A., who was shuttled back and forth between the Bedford Armory in Brooklyn and several shelters in Manhattan due to overcrowding and insufficient supplies.

“Two of us already caught the sickness by going back and forth,” said A. in a video testimonial. “Instead of placing us in hotels where we could be safe, this is what they were doing to us. We got kids, we’re all adults here. We got kids, mothers, fathers; no matter what, we’re human, man.” 

While a critical immediate solution, filling hotel rooms with shelterless East Village residents would be a band-aid fix to a problem that’s affected the neighborhood and city for years. 

“The budget deficit in New York City is immense,” said Taylor. “We need reform, we need affordable housing. We know how to help homeless people, and we know that supportive housing is a cost effective and proven way to do that. We hope that future budgets will help the communities that actually need it the most and not the ones that don’t.”

Simone echoed the need for long-term thinking. The homelessness, housing, and healthcare crises are all enmeshed, and the side effects we are seeing in 2020 are flare-ups of problems that have always been present, albeit less apparent.

“We know for a fact that without bold solutions even more people will become homeless in the coming weeks and months. We need to think more proactively and long-term and be thinking better to make sure the most vulnerable people are safe.”