Philly’s COVID-19 hotels for homeless people are shutting down over loss of federal funding
Housing activists and some residents of the hotels have decried the decision, saying the city hasn’t communicated effectively with the people living there.
Citing funding constraints, Philadelphia officials will move the residents of two COVID-19 hotels — temporary housing for seniors or people with serious medical issues that put them at high risk for severe illness — elsewhere in the city in the coming days.
Housing activists and some residents of the hotels have decried the decision, saying the city hasn’t communicated effectively with the people living there about the move. They said the confusion had driven at least one hotel resident to go sleep on the streets again, and feared there would be more.
In addition, activists and residents said, they’re worried about their risk of COVID in the new sites. While they were housed in their own rooms in a Holiday Inn Express and Fairfield Inn located in Center City, some will now be moved to facilities where they fear they can’t effectively socially distance because they must share bathrooms.
Activists also had concerns about taking people away from the neighborhood they’ve called home for several months.
“Not only are the facilities disagreeable for some people, but locations are far away for people, especially with mobility issues, to get downtown,” said Wiley Cunningham, a member of Philadelphia Housing Action. “Where they are right now, they’re a few blocks away from the hospital.”
More than 200 people have passed through the hotels since the city established them at the beginning of the pandemic. City officials said the end of funding from the federal government means they have to find cheaper options to house the elderly and medically fragile people. Activists urged them to go to City Council for more money.
Twenty-nine people have already been moved into permanent housing; another 19 have signed leases and set move-in dates. Everyone in the hotels have been offered permanent housing, but some have not finalized their plans, or units for them are not immediately available, the city said. Fewer than 175 people remain between the two hotels.
The city has set up 138 beds in other sites, including one in North Philadelphia and another in Hunting Park, said Deputy Managing Director of Health and Human Services Eva Gladstein, who would not confirm exactly where the facilities are located.
“It is quite possible that people don’t know exactly where they are going right this minute, but everyone has some place to go,” said Liz Hersh, the director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services. She said the timing of the move wasn’t ideal — especially with cold weather and snow in the forecast — but the city didn’t have money to continue the hotel arrangement. She urged advocates to call on the federal government to help.
“When Congress passed the CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act, we thought maybe the pandemic would be over by now, and that hasn’t been borne out. We’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons here,” she said.
Some residents said they had spent the last few weeks in a panic, after the city slipped notes under their hotel room doors notifying them that the hotels would close on Dec. 15. Hersh and Gladstein said that deadline is no longer firm, and that departures will be staggered over the next few days in part because of the weather forecast.
Some former hotel guests who have already been placed in other housing said the process had been smooth. Kevin Vickerson moved into one of the hotels earlier this year to avoid crowded shelters where he kept getting sick: He contracted the flu, and then pneumonia. On Friday, he moved into a room at the Love Pray Peace Project, a veterans’ retirement community that recently expanded to include civilians. Now, he is waiting on a housing voucher for a more permanent home.
“[The city] sent us notices weeks ago that they would be closing on the 15th, and they said they had a place open for me, and did I mind moving out early?” he said. “I said, Why not? I’ve been very fortunate. Everyone I’ve come across has been very helpful. It kept me off the streets and kept me from being sick.”
But other hotel residents said their caseworkers, contractors from the nonprofit Resources for Human Development, hadn’t told them what to expect.
“I’ve asked [my caseworker] several times where I’m going to be staying, where I am going to go,” said Stacie Miller, 55, who has a number of serious lung conditions. She cried when she received notice the hotel was closing, saying, “I don’t know where I’m going tomorrow.”
In a Zoom call with a handful of housing activists on Monday evening, Hersh said the city had worked hard to get permanent housing for residents of the hotels and said she would consider activists’ request to meet with guests to assuage some of their fears.
Max Ray-Reik, a member of ACT UP, the AIDS activism group that’s also active in housing issues, said his organization is working to keep in touch with hotel residents as they move.
“We’re at least trying to get everyone a phone — trying to be there for people,” he said. “We’re trying to continue to keep asking for this to be postponed as long as possible.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.