Homeless Reflect on Life in a New York City Hotel Room, One Year Later

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Yves here. These examples illustrate what a difference having a space, as opposed to living on the streets or in shelter, make to the homeless. With so much underutilized hotel and residential space, it’s a shame programs like this are being terminated because Covid is supposedly in retreat. The fact that American cities don’t even have public restrooms (much the less keeping them minimally clean as quite a few world cities seem able to do) is another manifestation of our hostility to the poor and outsiders.

By contrast, this story describes what a powerful impact having one’s own bed, shower and toilet had made for these recently homeless New Yorkers. Having that small measure of control over their lives has enabled them to move forward on other fronts when before, merely surviving was a full time project. It also counters the old view of the early 2000s, as cited by Malcolm Gladwell, that the chronically and episodically homeless consisted of at least occasional substance abusers. Now, unaffordable housing is a significant contributor. From the National Low Income Housing Coalition:

Record-breaking numbers of families cannot afford a decent place to call home:

• Nationally, there is a shortage of more than 7 million affordable homes for our nation’s 11 million plus extremely low-income families. View The Gap
• There is no state or county where a renter working full-time at minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment. View the Out of Reach Map
• Seventy-five percent of all extremely low-income families are severely cost-burdened, paying more than half their income on rent.

By Claudia Irizarry Aponte. Originally published at THE CITY on May 10, 2021

Nunu Jefferson and Ashley Belcher in their hotel room on the Lower East Side, Apr. 29, 2021. Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Since last April, thousands of homeless New Yorkers in the city’s shelter system have been staying in formerly private hotels — a need brought on by the pandemic.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has set July 1 as the day the city is expected to fully reopen amid rising vaccination rates and decreasing infections. That’s also the day the city has suggested it will complete its transition of people from hotels back to the homeless shelter system, where people were 61% more likely to die of COVIDthan anywhere else at the height of the pandemic last spring.

Advocates for the homeless have criticized the planned return, noting that on Jan. 21, President Joe Biden extended an executive order mandating that FEMA reimburse all costs relating to emergency management of “non-congregate shelters” until September.

As the city moved people from shelters to city-contracted hotels last year, advocates with the #HomelessCantStayHome campaign raised funds to place up to 30 people into private hotels. As THE CITY reported, those once homeless New Yorkers had a very different experience than the more than 12,000 placed in hotels set up by City Hall.

THE CITY recently caught up with some of those staying in rooms funded by the campaign and asked them to reflect on the impact of residing in a private space after life on the streets or in shelters.

The simple dignity of having a clean bed and a shower of their own meant they could spend the past year working, going to school and getting their health in order. Otherwise, their days would have been filled with worries about where to eat, sleep or relieve themselves next amid the pandemic.

Now they’re scrambling to find housing with vouchers from the city, hoping to avoid a return to the streets or shelters.

Here are some of their stories.

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jeff Wolford

Before the coronavirus ravaged New York last spring, Wolford, 35, worked as an upholsterer by day and slept in the city’s subways, by night. He moved into a hotel on the Lower East Side provided by the Homeless Can’t Stay Home campaign in April 2020.

“Before the pandemic, I made money, but not enough to afford a place to live in New York City. And it’s hard to focus on work and on finding gigs when you’re sleeping on the street. I was in the Fedcap program and they were helping me find jobs and apply to school, and that helped a lot. But being here is what made the difference.

“I got a computer and started taking some free Microsoft cybersecurity courses. Now I’m just three credits away from the final exam. I didn’t even know what a ‘command prompt’ was a year ago!

Jeff Wolford in his hotel room, April 6, 2021. Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

“But the main thing now is finding an actual apartment, because this hotel thing won’t last forever. I have a voucher, I got it last year, but it’s hard to find an apartment in New York with what I have now. The city gives up to $1,200 a month, and you can’t sublet — it has to be your own apartment. You try finding an apartment, or even a studio, for that kind of money these days. It’s just really hard.

“Living in the hotel has been a real confidence boost. It’s been the first and only bit of stability since I became homeless. I can finally be a regular person again.”

Ashley Belcher and Nunu Jefferson

Ashley Belcher, 28, and Wiaheed “Nunu” Jefferson, 36, have been living in a Lower East Side hotel room since April 2020. Belcher is originally from Carbondale, Penn., and has drifted in and out of homelessness for most of her life. Jefferson is a native New Yorker.


“I’m doing good now. Once we settled into the hotel I started taking care of myself. I can go to the doctor now, which means I can get my prescriptions for my irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis. I also went to the dentist, which I hadn’t been to in so many years. I could never go to the doctor when we lived outside. I can do these things because I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to be or where I’m going to sleep every day

We buy shirts at the Salvation Army and we dyed them with the kit, and we sell them on Second Avenue and Delancey. So we have our little side hustle there…

“Our biggest challenge now is finding an apartment. The hotel is nice but we need our own space. We have a bed and we have a private bathroom, for example, but we don’t have a kitchen. So we still have to buy most of our meals.

“We both got housing vouchers last year, but we can’t find anything we can afford. We go on StreetEasy every day and can’t find something that costs $1,250 — what our voucher is worth. And when we do find an apartment in our budget, we’ll call the number on the listing or the landlord and they’ll tell us that they don’t take the voucher, which we think is illegal.

“This hotel is the biggest thing that has ever happened to us. It’s also gotten me thinking that I want to go to college. I saw an ad on Facebook the other day for online school — I think I could do that. I wrote to them and told them our situation and [the admissions representative] encouraged me to apply, even though I need a laptop.

“I want to become an addiction counselor. My mom passed away in March after a long battle with addiction. I want to be able to help other people.”


“Landing this hotel was a big change for me right there, this has been the biggest thing so far for me in my life. It’s opened my eyes to all the different possibilities in life.

“I went to work. I’m still doing my gigs in construction and like handymen work, and we’re selling tie-dye shirts on Second Avenue.

“But I also help out in the hotel — I sweep up the halls, I take out the trash. In the past year, I’ve shoveled snow, I’ve cleaned out graffiti.

“I do all that because I want to show management and all the people who are here that I’m clean, that I’m stable, that I take care of myself. That I can keep myself clean, I can keep my building clean. I try to show them that I’m fit to live here.”

Marcus Moore

Marcus Moore, 49, lived in an abandoned Far Rockaway house for three years before the police cleared him out of the space weeks before the city shut down in March 2020. He moved into a Lower East Side hotel room a month later and currently lives in a hotel room near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He has been a board member at Picture The Homeless, a homeless-led advocacy group, since 2016.

“I’ll be honest with you, a year after being in this hotel — I’m scared. I’m concerned… that we could be thrown back into the streets and the congregate shelters.

“The transition should be: shelter to hotel to permanent housing, or just simply from shelter to housing. But now we’re contemplating going back to these spaces where we’re not safe. And it’s not right.

“But I’m also proud of what we’ve accomplished, and what our movement has accomplished. In spite of it all, we’re all in good spirits. This all started because there were 30 of us who got hotel rooms through crowdfunding with the Homeless Can’t Stay Home campaign, and we pushed the city to provide hotel rooms for everybody. And we won. And when we wanted more time social distancing in the hotels, we protested in front of [DHS Commissioner] Steve Banks’ house — and that got a lot of attention, too.

“I got the hotel through my organization, Picture The Homeless. I’d just gotten kicked out of this abandoned house that I occupied in Far Rockaway for like three years. I was living in the subways, making 40 deliveries for DoorDash a night on my bike, worried about the virus and wondering if my body would break.

“So it’s weird — this pandemic has taken so many people’s lives. It’s been horrible. It’s been deadly. But in a crazy way, it saved some lives, too. It saved my life: I’m living in a clean hotel room, I have my health in order, I can shower, I’m clean. Through this campaign, through this activism, I got a housing voucher for the first time in my life, and cash assistance too — that’s crazy for Marcus Moore!”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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  1. sd

    Affordable housing…close friend was on fixed income due to a disability. College educated, no substance abuse problems, charming, An ideal tenant.

    If he worked, his disability was reduced. But his disability wasn’t enough to cover rent and he couldn’t work full time. A new building went up advertising low income units for those who qualified. So he applied. His social security check was too low to qualify for the subsidized low income studio. He didn’t make enough to qualify for low income housing!

    And that beautifully sums up housing in America today.

    1. Chris Smith

      I’ve challenged housing subsidy and pubic housing disqualifications as a legal aid lawyer. I remember the first one I did, where I was challenging a client’s denial based on a bad credit. I could not believe my guy could not get public housing on account of bad credit. I looked the director of the local housing authority in the eye with all of the coldness I could and asked, “so if you are poor and have bad credit, where the hell are you supposed to go if you can’t get public housing?” His response was to check with the county. But I left him visibly shaken. (Note: never yell at bureaucrats, they are prepared for that. Go cold, clinical, and ask the pointed moral question. Don’t break the uncomfortable silence and maintain eye contact.) It’s almost as if that point had never occurred to him. Our country is just cruel that way

  2. Dave in Austin

    Back in my NYC time the poor without families lived in mid-town in SRO (single room occupancy) hotels, left over from the days (1910-40) when business people came to NYC by train for conventions and on buying trips. All they wanted was a clean bed, a toilet, a sink and if they were lucky a shower. I knew failed artists, gays who never made it big and assorted cranks who were poor but not afflicted with drugs who lived that way. The owners and managers put up with no noise or disruption. They were safe and quiet and many people had storage in make-shift lofts in the high-ceilinged room.

    Electricity was short and there were no sprinklers, so some didn’t allow hot plates and refrigerators and AC was unheard of. But they had concrete floors and the City fire marshalls kept a close eye on the places. Hallways were like little towns. As people grew older and less able the neighbors would shop for them. A sad and I’m sure lonely end for once hopeful people from Nebraska. Some hotels allowed women; most didn’t. The old beauties were usually to be found at the Y.

    Modern antidiscrimination laws, legal aid lawyers with “temporay” court orders, a wave of teardowns driven partly by rent controls of pre-war buildings and the attention by well-meaning people who said the hotels were “substandard” slowly ended those hotels. By the way, a wave of non-standard-gender-people in Austin are moving to NYC, usually Brooklyn. The cycle continues.

  3. Mark

    I found this a quite heart-warming. It is amazing what a little stability can do to turn around your life.

    Now some people homeless or otherwise are deeper in the hole** or life struggles than others but sometime all it take is a little help to enable somebody to pull themselves the rest of the way out.

    **The hole is a relative thing. Many of us end up in a shallow hole at some point or other in our lives. However through privilege, a good support network or other benefits we avoid the losing the core basics of a roof over our heads.

  4. Bob

    “The state of Utah has therefore implemented the “Housing First” program and started to provide shelter for all in need, meaning that homeless people in the state receive apartments without any preconditions. Thanks to the Housing First program, the number of chronically homeless people in Utah has been reduced by 91% in ten years.”

    Utah can do it and the rest of the nation can’t ?

    1. XXYY

      Many cities and states have cranked the numbers and found they are spending between $20,000 and $40,000 annually per homeless person between police time, court time, jail, sanitation, and ER and other medical costs. So providing housing for the homeless usually makes financial sense as well as (obviously) being humane and moral in its own right.

      I continue to be amazed that this fact does not immediately lead to widespread state and national programs.

  5. Code Name D

    I think its time we start talking about dreaded “public housing” again. Stories like this just add more emphasizes not only to its need, but to the fact that it works – damn it – it works. The problem has come to a head where a judge has basically ordered the city to begin housing its homeless.
    https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2021/05/10/skid-row-la-homeless-crisis Of course, in typical neo-liberal fashion, the city is appealing citing long used arguments of learned-helplessness on the part of city policy which continues to basically criminalize the homeless. And while the judges order is a refreshing vindication of advocates by directly damning city policy from the bench, they do not appear hopeful that the ruling will stick or deliver relief.

    The problem is market based. The city refuses to assert any initiative or authority in civic planning or housing regulation, especially with the resale of property. When ever a property comes onto the market, it is instantly snatched up by investors for high-end product development. Low to moderate homes are bought up and replaced with high end condos and McMansions. High-end development projects face few regulatory hurdles and are even showered with tax abatement and regulatory exemptions from the city and state in the name of “economic expansion.” While even refurbishing contracts for existing middle-class housing is trapped in round after round of public reviews, environmental surveys, community review consoles, arbitrary building code changes, disruptive fiscal audits, and court hearings for zoning disputes. And this is for EXISTING properties.

  6. Carla

    I highly recommend Matthew Desmond’s book “EVICTED: Poverty & Profit in the American City.” Used copies are available for cheap at betterworldbooks.com.

    Per the comment about Utah above: yes, Housing First is essential.

    1. Duck1

      So, Utah must be a deep blue state somehow hidden in the arid vastness of the western US? Oh, wait!

      1. juno mas

        Well, at he state level (legislators/Governor/Senator) it is a Red State. But it was Jon Huntsman (Presidential candidate) who was involved in initiating Housing First.

        With a large Mormon presence, Salt Lake City, is known for strong community care. As most people know, housing of the chronically homeless (many with mental, addiction, life-skill disability) requires professional, long-term intervention that requires coordinated local.state. federal support (money). The episodically homeless usually just need rental vouchers to offset job loss or medical calamity—much easier solution.

        Utah is no longer hidden in the arid vastness. Like Nevada it is experiencing a substantial population increase that is making housing unaffordable for many.

  7. lampoon

    King County (Seattle) is planning to use $100 million from the rescue act for the homeless, including to acquire hotels and motels for housing the homeless. The County is already using four motels to house the homeless with great results. From the Seattle Times: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/king-county-announces-new-proposal-to-bring-500-homeless-residents-into-shelter-using-federal-stimulus-funds/
    and more recently

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