RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Every day in New York City, social workers try to engage the city's homeless people.
STEVEN BANKS: The people that are on the streets have fallen through every social safety net. They're distrustful of government. They're distrustful of everybody. And that's what our outreach teams do, try to build trust to build a pathway for human beings to come back inside.
MARTIN: That's Steven Banks. He's commissioner of homeless services for New York City. He was talking to me on Skype. There's an estimated 60,000 people living on the streets in New York. And now they've lost the subway as a place to sleep because it's closed from 1 to 5 a.m. for deep cleaning. So what is New York City doing to help?
BANKS: Back at the beginning of March, when this crisis first hit, we created an isolation system to move people out of our shelters into hotel rooms where they could isolate. We've had more than 750 people whose cases have resolved while we have about 900 positive tests. Unfortunately, we have lost some lives, which is why we are aggressively moving to bring people from those congregate shelters into commercial hotels.
MARTIN: So let's dig into some of those actions then. Why is it necessary to move people to hotels? What are the health risks of the shelters at this point?
BANKS: It's a shelter system where the majority of people in our shelter system are families with children or families in private, self-contained rooms with cooking facilities and bathrooms. But a portion of our shelter system is for single adults where they're in congregate-style living. And in order to promote social distancing in a congregate shelter, we wanted to de-densify those shelters and move individuals out.
MARTIN: Right. Congregate sheltering means people are in single beds or single cots in a big room, so it's hard to separate.
BANKS: Well, typically, it's eight to 12 people in a dorm. And it can be larger. But, you know, gone are the days where we had 200 beds and cots in shelters in New York City. We don't have that. We've dramatically changed the shelter system over the last three years, reforming, basically, you know, four decades of misguided policies. But nonetheless, we do have congregate shelters, and we wanted to make sure that we were, first of all, creating a way to isolate people who either had symptoms - we've moved to symptoms as opposed to simply positive tests. So in the beginning of March, we created that isolation system. And then we began moving individuals out of those congregate shelters. Even with eight to 12 people in a room, we wanted to promote social distancing. We staggered the meals. We staggered the cleaning. We took a number of steps that we thought were important to take. But we wanted to go further. And that's why we've been moving about a thousand individuals a week out of those congregate shelters.
MARTIN: How do you decide who gets to go to a hotel room, which presumably is a safer, healthier environment?
BANKS: We prioritize first people over 70. Then we looked at our largest shelters and wanted to immediately cut the population dramatically and began to do those moves. And then now we've been moving entire shelters into commercial hotel rooms.
MARTIN: So is this a long-term solution? Because we just don't know how long the virus will be at dangerous levels. Things are leveling off in New York. But as you know, there are real concerns about a second wave come fall. Can you keep people in those hotel rooms? Can you keep those families in those apartments, in these shelters? Can you keep people safe?
BANKS: That's what we're focused on 24/7. The context in which this crisis hit is one in which we've been reforming a shelter system and an approach to shelter in New York City that's been four decades in the making. And we've got the tools to prevent homelessness. While evictions are up all across the country, we drove evictions down 41% through our right to counsel law and providing renters payments. We have rental subsidies that are largely paid for by the city in which 140,000 people have gotten permanent housing through our rehousing programs. That's the context in which we are fighting this virus. But as we're doing it, we want to make sure that people are safe and we have a right to shelter in the city, and we have robust programs in place to prevent homelessness. Those are going to continue because now more than ever we have to keep people in their homes. We have an eviction moratorium in the city. Should that be lifted, we're ready with our right to counsel lawyers, the not-for-profits like the Legal Aid Society, that are going to help us keep people in their homes. Meanwhile, if people do lose their homes, we have the ability to provide them with shelter and through this commercial hotel initiative the ability to keep them safe.
MARTIN: Steven Banks - he is commissioner of New York City's social services. Thank you so much for talking with us.
BANKS: Thanks so much for having me.
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