Elderly residents at a boutique hotel on New York City's Upper West Side are voicing concerns over the city moving homeless people into their building amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, saying the city is placing an already-vulnerable population at higher risk.
Yet, city officials say moving the homeless into designated hotels is critical to keeping all New Yorkers safe.
Four residents, who are among about 20 permanent tenants at the Hotel Belleclaire, told ABC News that they were not made aware that homeless New Yorkers would be moved in. Mayor Bill de Blasio had announced that the city was opening thousands of hotel rooms in early April to better protect them from the virus' spread, but did not specify which hotels.
Pam, a 75-year-old resident who asked ABC News not to use her last name, was surprised to see the Belleclaire was one of those hotels. She said the majority of the permanent residents are in their 70s and some, including herself, suffer from illnesses.
"All of a sudden, these school buses pulled up and people started carrying their garbage bags into the hotel," on the evening of May 3, according to Pam. "I didn't find out until the next day, but no one told us this was gonna happen and I'm sure they didn't want us to try and stop it."
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She estimates about 150 people moved in.
Pam, who said she suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said that they were not wearing masks or properly maintaining social distance in the first few days, but most have since done so.
Yet her biggest concern remains: Why are two vulnerable groups being housed together?
"It's just, you're walking through the hotel and we don't know where people came from or if people are sick," she said. "I mean, the whole thing from the beginning was you're trying to help these people, but then no one is testing and they're all thrown together. It's for their safety also."
In New York City, an overwhelming majority of the more than 20,000 deaths (which includes probable deaths by COVID-19), have been in residents 75 or older, according to data from the city. The next group with the most deaths was those 65 to 74 years old.
Pam admitted that while she would prefer that they were in an empty hotel, the goal isn't to kick them out.
"We want them tested and we cannot get any response on that," Pam said.
She wrote a letter addressed to de Blasio, but said she has not yet received a response.
A spokesman for the city's Department of Social Services (DSS), Isaac McGinn, said that individuals placed at the Belleclaire "have not expressed symptoms and are not ill." McGinn did not specifically say whether or not those living in shelters had been tested before moving into hotels.
He said that anyone who was ill was placed in the hospital and then isolated in a hotel that was dedicated for isolation, which did not include the Belleclaire.
"I can tell you that in these unprecedented times, the use of commercial hotels remains an essential part of our strategies for protecting the New Yorkers who we serve, as you'll see extensively described in the attached summary of our ongoing efforts to respond to the COVID pandemic," McGinn wrote to ABC News in an email. The summary included information on relocating individuals to hotels and similarly stated that those who were not sick were placed in the commercial hotels.
Howard Accurso, a 71-year-old tenant in the hotel for 46 years, called the claims by DSS "poppycock."
"I don't feel that I can trust that there's no COVID here," Accurso said. From the beginning, he said the agency "kept us in the dark" and did not inform residents that people in shelters would be moving in.
Accurso also said that even if they were not sick when they first entered the hotel, some are not wearing masks and he fears they could contract the virus when they go outside.
He noted that he believes homeless people in shelters deserve safe housing during the pandemic.
"But so do I. Why didn't they use truly empty hotels instead of putting us in jeopardy?" he told ABC News. "Would you want to live in a homeless shelter?"
Beyond concerns about testing, Accurso said he has not used the elevator because he does not want to risk catching the virus. Instead, he takes the three flights of stairs down to the lobby, a challenge he said, when reentering the building.
"I'm living in a very stressful situation," Accurso said. "One that I did not put myself into."
Two other tenants spoke to ABC News, but asked not to be named. Their concerns echoed Pam and Accurso's.
Since May 3, when the homeless population moved into the Belleclaire, there have been five complaints with the city's Department of Buildings, according to online records.
The majority of the complaints were about construction. One noted that nonessential construction was supposed to halt because of the pandemic, but the city's building department determined that the building was essential because it was a homeless shelter.
People living in shelters need protections from the city during the pandemic because they are more at risk for contracting COVID-19. Shelters are congregated settings where the virus could easily spread and maintaining social distancing is not possible.
There were 996 total positive cases among the homeless as of May 19, 833 of which were among those in shelters, according to the city's Department of Social Services. More than half were resolved, which the city said meant that those who tested positive met the criteria to have their case closed, including a lapse in time since their initial positive test.
At least 77 homeless New Yorkers have died, according to the department.
"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," according to a statement from the department.
So far, about 9,000 people who are homeless were moved to hotels across the city. The number is expected to increase to 10,000.
"Every day, we're redoubling our efforts and evolving with this situation to ensure we're supporting our clients in all that we do -- and we continue to explore new strategies and policy responses as this situation unfolds," the statement read.
It is not clear how hotels are chosen to house those who had been living in shelters. Mark Diller, the chair of Community Board 7, where the hotel is located, said his understanding was that hotel operators volunteered to have their buildings used.
Another organization then partnered with the hotel to help the process run smoothly. For the Belleclaire, the organization is HELP USA, a nonprofit supporting youth and families who are facing homelessness.
The company that operates the Belleclaire, which opened in 1903 and has 244 rooms, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from ABC News.
Diller said there is no approval that's required or solicited from the board for the hotels used for those without shelter. He added the community in the Upper West Side has long been a "welcoming home for a lot of social services," including the Department of Homeless Services.
"And I think a lot of us are pretty proud to do our part and, truthfully, a little bit more than our part," Diller said.
Steve Mott, the chair of staff at HELP USA, told ABC News that the organization is doing what it can to make the move as safe as possible. He said there are two security guards on site on each floor, thermometers are available for daily temperature checks and that surfaces are being wiped down as often as possible.
He said that normally shelters take years to construct and find, but staff placed people without shelter into the Belleclaire in just three days.
"Is this the most ideal place that you would put a person? I don't know honestly, but we didn't have three years to tour 50 sites. ... You can't do that when you're trying to rush people out of a congregate living site," he said, noting that the longer they were at those sites, the more at risk they were.
Mott encouraged any residents with specific concerns to contact the nonprofit, but he said there is little to do about general unease.
"I don't fault people for worrying when a bunch of new people move into a place they've been living forever ... but I do think we have a responsibility to take care of the people who need help the most," Mott said.
The tenants who spoke to ABC News questioned whether DSS knew there were permanent residents who lived there. They also wondered if management did not disclose to DSS that permanent residents lived there.
Regardless, they say that their own concerns have been overshadowed.
"We could debate the philosophical question if the benefit of 250 shelter residents overrides 22 elderly," Accurso said. "I admit that I have blinders on. ... But there's no attempts to accommodate the permanent residents."