Philly to close COVID prevention spaces for homeless at 2 hotels this month

The skyline in Center City Philadelphia (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — The Kenney administration will end so-called COVID-19 “prevention sites” for homeless individuals at two city hotels at the end of the month in a bid to save money as the virus rages in Philadelphia.

Fewer than 160 homeless individuals who remain at the Center City hotels will begin to be transferred to a pair of temporary sites in North Philadelphia and the Hunting Park neighborhood run by community-based providers within about 10 days.

The hotels will cost the city $16 million from when they opened in May through the end of the year, which includes associated costs, like security, meals and cleaning. The sites will be shut down at year’s end when federal coronavirus funding, which pays for them, is exhausted.

Exactly how much money the city will save by ending the prevention sites at the hotels has yet to be determined but the costs of the new facilities would be “significantly lower,” said Kenney administration spokesman Mike Dunn. The rent at the new facilities will be one-sixth of that at the hotels and fewer individuals will require assistance going forward as more are put into long-term housing.

Among the nonprofits operating the new prevention sites are Resources for Human Development and Bethesda Project.

Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director of the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, and Liz Hersh, Philadelphia’s director of homeless services, declined to reveal the locations of the two new prevention sites during a virtual news conference on Monday.

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Homeless individuals can remain in the new prevention sites until long-term housing is found for them, Gladstein and Hersh said.

Nearly 50 people have moved out of the prevention spaces into long-term housing already, according to the Kenney administration.

Housing advocates decried the administration’s decision to end the prevention sites in Center City hotels.

Philadelphia Housing Action (PHA), a coalition of advocates who represented those involved in the pro-affordable housing encampments this year, said in a released statement that the Kenney administration has failed to adequately communicate with prevention site residents about the new sites.

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Max Ray-Riek, a member of the nonpartisan group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which is a member organization of PHA, pushed for the prevention sites to remain in the pair of Center City hotels until at least March.

Residents have lived in those hotels for months and formed communities there, Ray-Riek said in an interview on Monday.

“That’s the best thing that [Kenney administration officials] could possibly do,” Ray-Riek said. “It minimizes the disruption and gives [officials] a chance to keep their promise, which is: Everybody gets from the hotel into permanent housing.”

The lack of federal funding and high rents in Center City compelled the Kenney administration to move the prevention sites, Gladstein and Hersh said.

“All things being equal, this is not the timing we would have chosen,” Hersh said, referring to transferring homeless individuals to new sites.

Housing advocates also blasted the Kenney administration for putting some residents in shared rooms and making them use shared bathrooms in the new sites, which may put them at risk of contracting COVID-19.

“I think the city should be really worried about a wrongful death or state-created danger suit coming out of this if someone contracts coronavirus and dies as a result of their placement in a facility with any kind of congregate setting,” Jennifer Bennetch of OccupyPHA said in PHA’s released statement.

The new prevention sites will provide enough space for upwards of 200 individuals. Most of the spaces are single rooms, while an unknown number of individuals will share a room with one other person, Hersh said. Individuals also will share bathrooms.

Gladstein said the shared rooms are large enough for two people to social distance. The city’s plans for the new prevention sites were approved by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and the spaces will be cleaned, Gladstein added.

The virus continues its winter surge in the city.

On Monday the city added 2,078 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases, which included totals from the previous three days. The city has confirmed 80,485 cases of COVID-19 since the virus arrived here in March.

African-American Philadelphians contract and die from the virus at higher levels than any other racial group in the city.

The current prevention spaces are located at the Holiday Inn Express at 13th and Walnut streets and the Fairfield Inn at 13th and Spruce streets, according to the news reports. At least 260 individuals have used the prevention spaces since they opened in the spring.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.