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NYC Invests In Permanent Housing For Homeless. Will Phase Out Hotel Use


Every corner of this country that wants to get federal money for services for the homeless has to physically send people out into the streets to count every homeless person they see. Sarah Gonzalez from our Planet Money podcast tells us what cities are learning from that process.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Here's how the counts work. Thousands of volunteers fan out across cities. They get a map and a tally sheet, and they just start marking.


UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #2: Did you count that one that ran across the street?

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #1: Yeah. I got him. You're not in trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #3: Cowboy, you're good.

GONZALEZ: In Los Angeles, every inch is counted - beaches, alleys, dried-out riverbeds. Makeshift campsite? Tally mark. An actual person? Tally mark.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #1: OK. So two individuals?

GONZALEZ: And all of these tally marks helped determine where federal funding will go. LA's newest count found more than 44,000 people living on the street in some way. New York City's count found about 3,500. But in New York, there are thousands more living in shelters - about 64,000 more, according to shelter monitors. In New York City, there's what's called a right to shelter. The city is legally obligated to find a bed for every person who needs one. If shelters are full, people cannot be turned away. And when the city can't find a bed, they turn to hotels, sometimes fancy hotels. One in the heart of Times Square, between the skyscrapers and flashing lights and tourists, has three floors reserved for homeless families with children.

There's, like, chandeliers, bellboys, really pretty orchids.

Last year, New York City spent $364 million renting hotel rooms as shelters. Chris (ph) recently became homeless and spent the first two nights sleeping on trains.

CHRIS: Yeah. That's not too good 'cause I didn't know about the hotels.

GONZALEZ: Chris asked us not to use his last name because he's looking for a job. He checked into a hotel in Lower Manhattan that's completely occupied by men who are homeless, paid for by the city.

So this is - your window's overlooking a park?

CHRIS: Mmm hmm. And that's my bed there, and so...

GONZALEZ: But this bed doesn't look like a hotel bed.

CHRIS: No. No, no, no. The headboard is still up there, but everything else was taken away so they could put these two cots, is what I call them - twin bed on metal.

GONZALEZ: So they removed the official hotel furniture?

CHRIS: Yeah because it's only one bed.

GONZALEZ: All the hotel rooms the city uses are technically shelters with all the rules of a shelter. You have to be in your room by 10 p.m. You cannot be in the hotel during the day. There's no food or drinks allowed - just water. Security guards pat you down.

CHRIS: They check your socks. But if you take the candy bar and put it in the back of your sock, they don't check that (laughter).

GONZALEZ: A group called the Coalition for the Homeless was behind the right to shelter. They say it does lead to fewer people sleeping on the streets. But Giselle Routhier, with the Coalition, says they never thought it would lead to hotels.

GISELLE ROUTHIER: It's far, far cheaper to provide housing. And not only is it just cheaper, it's a more humane thing to do.

GONZALEZ: Routhier says sheltering someone like Chris costs about $40,000 a year. Renting him an apartment would be half that. And the city says, yes, using hotels as shelters is expensive so they're investing more in permanent housing now and phasing out commercial hotel use. But they say it'll take five years. Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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