The Bowery Mission. (Photo: Daniel Maurer)

Earlier this month, MTA track inspectors came upon the remains of a middle-aged man in a subway tunnel near the Wall Street station. Officials suspected the deceased was a homeless person electrocuted by the third rail while seeking refuge underground. As temperatures drop, more and more New Yorkers are reportedly seeking shelter in the tunnels, illuminating the complex difficulties of contending with homelessness in the cold amid a pandemic.

For individuals facing housing insecurity, autumn’s colder weather, coupled with closures and restrictions on shelters due to COVID-19, amount to even more hurdles amid an already challenging season.

In light of the pandemic, the Bowery Mission, a Christian mission that has served New York City’s housing insecure since the 1870s, has ceased its usual practice of bringing individuals inside for large group gatherings for food and shelter. A dedicated page on its website lists the updated services, many of which have remained in place in a downsized format. Individuals can pick up to-go meals and use the showers as needed. There are still residential programs for those in need, though they aren’t very large; these residents are the only individuals allowed to eat indoors aside from the staff.  

As the weather gets colder, keeping people outside presents more of a problem, says Lina Fernandez, a regular volunteer.

“Already, being homeless is such a difficult situation to be in, and on top of that to deal with COVID and on top of that to deal with the winter, it’s gonna be really hard,” she said.

Fernandez said there were no current plans to allow more people into the Mission’s six locations. “We don’t want to crowd people together in a situation where they’d be more likely to spread COVID, if anyone should have it,” she said.

Beth Pontes, an outreach intern at Trinity Commons, a New York-based organization that helps individuals facing food and housing insecurity, highlighted issues regarding the intersection of homelessness and food insecurity.

At the outbreak’s peak, about 40 percent of the city’s soup kitchens and food pantries were closed, according to a report by Food Bank for New York City. Some 75 percent of food pantries and soup kitchens surveyed reported serving more New Yorkers in April than in the months leading up to COVID-19, with 31 percent reporting that their number of visitors more than doubled. Though these numbers have steadily been declining, concerns have mounted regarding New York City’s ability to support at-risk populations as the city heads toward another surge of coronavirus cases.

Pontes also worries about the impacts autumn will have on at-risk individuals’ autonomy. “When it gets colder, they don’t want people experiencing homelessness in the parks anymore, so what they do is force them into shelters,” she said.

The number of unsheltered individuals sleeping on New York City streets or subways has climbed to a five-year high this year, as the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated street homelessness and ravaged shelters. Mayor de Blasio has pushed for efforts to house some of these individuals in hotels, as well as to create more “safe haven” beds in the city to keep people off the streets. 

Some 9,500 homeless people have been relocated to 63 hotels during the pandemic, but the program remains controversial. One notable relocation– of more than 200 men to the Lucerne on the Upper West Side– sparked outrage among neighbors over street conditions that de Blasio eventually deemed “not acceptable.” (A ruling on whether the city will be able to move them to another hotel in the Financial District is imminent.) Hell’s Kitchen residents also pushed back against hundreds temporarily relocated there. 

Although hotel relocation “seems like it would be something that’s good, it’s actually kind of counterproductive,” Pontes explained. “You’re taking away the autonomy of those people, especially now with COVID.”

“It’s your choice if you want to go to a shelter or not, because you’re a human and you get to make that choice,” Pontes continued. “Now that there’s COVID, a lot of people don’t want to go into shelters,” she explained, elaborating that shelters have become “a really big risk for people” due to the city’s mismanagement. 

From March through August, homeless, sheltered New Yorkers died from COVID-19 at a rate 78 percent higher than the general New York City rate, according to an analysis released by the Coalition for the Homeless. The mortality rate due to COVID-19 for all of New York City increased by 19 percent over the summer; for homeless single adults, who comprise the majority of the population in congregate shelters, it increased by 46 percent during the same period. The lack of controlled, private spaces for homeless people greatly exacerbates the potential for virus transmission. 

Pontes explained that Trinity Commons utilizes harm reduction to consider individuals’ wishes, a practice where one attempts to lessen the harm caused by certain behaviors rather than eliminate the behavior altogether. “You really have to remember that they are the experts on their lives and just try to meet them with resources that can help them in whatever capacity that may be.”

For individuals refusing shelters, this often takes the form of providing winter clothing, masks, or sanitization products in an effort to “reduce the harm they may have from being outside.”

For many, it comes down to a choice between facing COVID in a shelter or facing the harsh weather outside. 

“I think that’s something that’s really hard for people to navigate,” Pontes concluded. “And it’s unfortunate they have to be in the position to even make that decision.”