Snow Delays Philly's Plans to Move Homeless From Hotels to Halfway Houses

Advocates were concerned about moving hotel residents to double rooms where the coronavirus could more easily spread.

Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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With no federal relief funds left, Philly was set to relocate about 160 homeless people who've lived in hotel rooms the city rented during the coronavirus pandemic.

But this week's winter weather has delayed that process, a spokesman for Mayor Jim Kenney's administration said Wednesday, as fat flakes fell across Center City.

The Holiday Inn Express and Fairfield Inn in Center City were used as temporary housing for homeless people at risk of contracting COVID-19 to keep them in a non-congregate setting seen as safer than a shelter. Since the coronavirus prevention sites opened in the spring, they peaked at 260 residents, and were down to 160 on Monday, deputy managing director Eva Gladstein told reporters in a news conference.

She said the move-outs were to long-term housing that the city arranged or helped them secure with other agencies. The city helps them get transportation to the new unit, furniture and a TV for the new place.

A group of housing advocates who worked on the homeless encampment protests said that some hotel residents chose to leave after receiving a letter from a city official saying the hotels would close Tuesday, Dec. 15.

The city later said that the move-outs would be spread out over a week and a half and complicated by the severe weather.

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If someone’s long-term housing isn’t ready, Liz Hersh, director of the city's homeless services, and the mayor's spokesman said hotel residents will be moved to two new coronavirus prevention sites, or to a slate of more than 100 single-occupancy rooms in other locations.

"Mostly people will be in their own rooms. Some of the rooms are very very large, so they can accommodate 2 people with 10-12 feet in between them," Hersh said Monday.

Hersh and Gladstein said they wouldn't disclose the names of the two main sites and there was little information available on the 100-plus single rooms. A city spokesman said the 100 single rooms are spread between three other sites which he also did not name.

Multiple reporters on the press Zoom call, which the city recorded and sent to NBC10, could not get a straight answer on whether the two main sites once served as halfway houses. Gladstein said she didn't know, because she left it up to the Department of Public Property to find the sites.

Billy Penn reported Thursday that one of those sites is owned by the private prison company CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America.

Candace McKinley, lead organizer of the Philadelphia Bail Fund, told NBC10 that halfway houses can provide a bed and a roof over one’s head. But to some it’ll feel like “maybe a step down from the jails.”

A few people who were released from city jails due to testing positive for the coronavirus were given shelter in the hotels to avoid spreading the virus to their families, McKinley explained.

“You’re going to put people back into this semi-carceral system because they’re indigent, or they caught covid while in the city’s jails and don’t want to take it back to their families.”

Some of the residents of the hotels will be moving to shared rooms and shared bathrooms.

“With what we know of covid and the spread of covid, it’s not ideal,” McKinley said of that arrangement. “People need to be able to socially distance.”

Gladstein said the city's health department had looked over the plans and approved them.

Federal money

The city's rent agreement with the Holiday Inn along the 1300 block of Walnut Street was for $175,000 a month and $119,000 a month for the Fairfield Inn at 13th and Spruce streets, officials said not long after inking the deals in the spring. The city paid the bills with federal coronavirus relief funds.

Funds were also used to staff the sites with care providers.

"This is not the timing we would have chosen. When Congress passed the CARES Act, I think like all of us, we all thought that maybe the pandemic would be over by now, and that hasn’t been borne out," Hersh said ahead of the hotel moveouts Monday. "So we’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons here and look at our commitment to keep people safe."

"We appreciate all of you caring enough to pay attention to all of this, and we certainly hope that you will go to our federal delegation and talk to them about the funding, not just to keep...the emergency services available, but really the long term housing," Hersh said. "The reason here that we're having this conversation is we have thousands of people in this city who are experiencing homelessness ... the real issue is that we have people homeless to begin with."

Buying, not renting

Another local government in our area struck a deal to use a hotel as an non-congregate emergency homeless shelter in the pandemic, but actually bought the building.

New Castle County’s local government is trying to get a rock bottom bargain on a hotel to help a population in need during the pandemic. NBC10’s Tim Furlong has the details.

New Castle County Council in Delaware purchased the 192-room Sheraton Wilmington South for $19.5 million, our news partners at WDEL reported. The hotel reopened as a shelter on Dec. 15.

The council had the hotel purchase on its agenda in October, and county executive Matt Meyer mentioned its possible use in a WDEL interview.

"We don't really want people leaving and going to congregate in different places outside. As much as possible, we want people to stay put," Meyer said.

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