NYC homeless services workers hit with coronavirus are ‘dropping like flies’ without protective gear
The NYC Department of Homeless Services Police talk to residents of homeless mens shelter in the Bronx in this file photo.
Homeless service workers are begging the city and state for gear to protect them against coronavirus, but are being armed with only wet wipes, hand sanitizer and masks they procure on their own, sources said.
“We started dropping like flies,” said one Department of Homeless Services peace officer who works at the Wards Island Men’s Shelter and has been sidelined with COVID-19 since mid-March. “Eventually everyone is going to get it.”
Since testing positive, seven coworkers have contracted the virus, said the peace officer, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. About 50 peace officers in total work at the Ward’s Island shelter.
“They don’t give us no equipment,” he said. “We used the same masks we came out of the academy with — the paper masks that come with the NARCAN equipment.”
Nurses, doctors and transit workers have been clamoring for personal protective equipment, or PPE, for weeks now. But other front line workers, like those who work for the city’s Department of Homeless Services, are exposed to the virus on a daily basis as well.
Another peace officer who contracted COVID-19 and is recovering at home fears he’ll pass it on to his elderly parents.
“God forbid,” he said. “They knock on the door and leave me my food. Nobody can come in.”
That man, who is employed by DHS and also asked to remain anonymous, said workers are expected to do their jobs with “no face masks, no gloves, no hand sanitizer.”
“It’s a domino effect,” he said. “Soon they’re not gonna have anybody over there. Everybody’s going to get sick.”
The problem is also being felt among city Homeless Services drivers and people who work for private non-profits contracted by the city and state, a union official told the Daily News.
“We have members who have tested positive, two drivers in particular. It’s clearly an issue,” said Marvin Robbins, vice president of DC 37 Local 983, which represents civil service workers. “They give the wipes and hand sanitizer, but they won’t give them the masks.”
Robbins said the issue is particularly problematic for city Department of Homeless Services drivers, who ferry families from the agency’s intake center in the South Bronx to shelters throughout the city.
“They’re essential employees and they have a job to do, but provide them with the necessary personal protective equipment to get the job done,” Robbins said. “If you’re not providing them with masks, they shouldn’t be transporting people to shelters.”
Fred Shack, CEO of private homeless services provider Urban Pathways, said his workers are in harm’s way as well.
Shack acknowledged that medical professionals should take priority when it comes to much needed protective gear, but noted: “The reality is our staff is also in need of PPE."
“Right now, we don’t have a supply of these things,” he said.
State officials told him they’ve ordered supplies, he said. City officials told his group that orders are “in process.”
A group of state lawmakers are now pushing the city do more to protect homeless New Yorkers and service providers.
Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D-Queens) penned a letter to Mayor de Blasio on Wednesday, calling on the city to provide personal protective equipment to shelter, outreach and drop-in staff, and asking DHS to look at moving vulnerable shelter residents to hotels.
The letter, signed by 56 other Senate and Assembly members, also calls on the city to ensure kids living in shelters have access to education and asks that children of homeless services staff have access to day care.
“We stand ready to work with you to ensure the implementation of these recommendations,” Hevesi wrote. “Thank you for your consideration and for your efforts to protect all New Yorkers.”
Department of Homeless Services spokesman Isaac McGinn said the agency is facing “the same larger supply chain issues as everyone else."
“In any case, we have been following the DOHMH guidance on PPE for our sites,” he said, referring to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.