When you picture a Super 8 hotel, you might think of an ice machine in its alcove, in a clean, off-white hallway; a friendly young employee at the reception desk, stock photos of city skylines hanging on the wall. You might imagine a small, sterile kitchen with a microwave and coffee dispenser; starched linens on firm beds; and that red and yellow logo, with a giant number 8, above the entrance. The Super 8 in Gowanus, Brooklyn, has all that.
But it also has some things the chain’s other 2,000-plus locations probably don’t have: notices posted in the hallway informing guests about different types of transitional housing to apply for; three meals a day paid for by the city; a 10:30 PM curfew (which can be waived for those who work late); and a basement office where various social services are available. That’s because this hotel is also a homeless shelter.
For the past two years, New York City’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has been renting 53 out of 57 rooms at this Super 8, one of numerous commercial hotels the city has been using to cope with a shortage of shelter space and a record high homeless population, which soared to nearly 63,000 last year. The New York Post and others have called the practice a waste of taxpayer money; an analysis by the Comptroller’s office found that the hotel use was costing the city $400,000 a day, while often providing fewer services. And neighbors of some of these de facto shelters have organized protests outside, citing pathologies stereotypically associated with homeless people, like drug abuse and mental illness. (A recent DNAinfo article about the Gowanus Super 8 quoted neighbors there invoking the same stereotypes, in expressing their dismay about the arrangement..) The city, meanwhile, has a legal obligation to provide shelter, the result of a 1979 court ruling, and must find beds for the unprecedented number of people, mostly families, who need them.
Mayor Bill de Blasio calls the hotel use a temporary solution to a difficult problem, and he’s promised to phase it out in the coming years. But for this Super 8 shelter, at two years in, it’s worth asking what ‘temporary’ means.
Frank Gamez, a 70-year old originally from Honduras, has been staying at the Gowanus Super 8 for about 7 months. “It’s a good place,” he says, between drags on a brown cigarillo. Wearing an olive-green polo shirt under a black fleece jacket, and khaki shorts, Frank leans back on a metal guardrail in the small parking lot behind the hotel; in front of him is a red and black walker, with a compartment for his radio and some other belongings. He’s stocky, with brown skin and close-cropped white hair, and he smiles to reveal some missing front teeth. “I’ve been happy here,” he says, with the traces of his accent that remain after decades in the U.S. “Not a hundred percent, but mostly good.”
Before suffering a foot injury in 2015, Frank was the super at the building where he lived in upper Manhattan; due to poor circulation from diabetes, he wound up having one of his toes amputated, and couldn’t work anymore. He says he gets disability benefits, but it’s not enough to pay rent, so he lost his apartment. He’s been homeless ever since.
As we’re talking, Frank stands up, leaning on his walker. He can’t sit still for long because of his circulation problems, so we walk part-way down the block, past the empty boarded up lot that sits next to the hotel’s small parking area. The green wooden fence is worn, with some of the wood rotting and chipped, and remnants of “POST NO BILLS” posters peeling to reveal graffiti underneath. There are weeds growing along the edge of the fence, and inside, plants so tall they reach over the top.
Frank says the hotel is much better than the regular shelter he stayed at before this, on Randall’s Island, which he described as crowded. But he hasn’t been told how long he’ll be staying here. Caseworkers are helping him find long-term housing, he says, but it’s taking a while. So, for now, he spends his days walking around the immediate neighborhood, with his walker, listening to the radio. “Spanish music,” he says.
While Frank and the other homeless men at the Super 8 wait, in a kind of limbo, the city says they shouldn’t get too settled in . The de Blasio administration, in a recently announced plan (“Turning the Tide on Homelessness”), has promised to end DHS’ use of commercial hotels – along with so-called ‘cluster sites’ (conventional apartments, often in dilapidated buildings and without reasonable access to social services) – within the next 6 years. It’s an overhaul of what the city calls an “unacceptable status quo” inherited from prior administrations’ mismanagement. “The shelters we have today are essentially the product of decades of short-term responses to an evolving long-term problem leading to people being sheltered in unfamiliar neighborhoods — far from work, school and family,” the plan says. To remedy that situation, the mayor has promised construction of 90 new shelters, with a focus on keeping people in the neighborhoods where they lived most recently.
New York City Councilmember Brad Lander, whose district includes the Super 8 in Gowanus, expressed sympathy with that aim, but told the New York Times in February that he doesn’t want it to “be a smokescreen for keeping an overconcentration in poor communities of color.” In March, Lander co-sponsored a bill that would require the city to use new criteria when choosing new locations, with the goal of “reducing overconcentration of city facilities in certain community districts.”
DHS Deputy Press Secretary Arianna Fishman suggested that perspective might be a bit shortsighted. “We consider this a citywide problem that needs a citywide solution,” she said in a phone interview. And she emphasized that the plan is trying to tackle a problem with deep roots. It is a solution, she said, to “what at the end of the day is an affordability crisis in New York City.”
But homeless advocates say more shelters aren’t the solution.
Shelters have a reputation, supported by internal government audits, for sometimes crowded, unsafe, and unsanitary conditions. And homeless advocates argue that conventional shelters, like hotels, are band-aids on the problem of homelessness, not a path to long-term housing.
Charmel Lucas, 50, is a member of Picture the Homeless, an organization run mainly by homeless people that advocates for housing and civil rights. Homeless since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Lucas has stayed in a number of hotels during that time. While the Holiday Inn where she is currently staying in Manhattan is comfortable, with a king-sized bed for her and her partner, and a TV in the room, another location where she stayed had no windows. “That was a real nightmare,” she said in a phone interview. “I try to forget about it.”
She appreciates the accommodation, but expressed frustration that it is getting her no closer to stability. “They spent $100,000 on us to stay in a 5-star hotel downtown,” she said, but that money could have been put towards housing, towards “getting our lives back together”. She and her partner have filled out the forms necessary to get into more permanent housing; right now, they just have to wait.
At the Super 8 in Gowanus, most people are in that same boat. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Valerio, 71, was walking down President Street, around the corner from the hotel, dressed in a white shirt and white baseball cap. He’s been staying at the hotel for 9 months now. Like Frank and Charmel, Valerio is waiting for an apartment. He’s filled out the paperwork and hopes something will come through. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Valerio walks with a cane and, like Frank, no longer works due to an injury. Speaking in Spanish, he says the hotel is a good place to stay, and he likes the neighborhood. “Es tranquilo”, he says – It’s peaceful.
A delivery truck pulls into the little alley parking area behind the hotel. Two workers start unloading boxes and milk crates onto a dolly, and wheel it into the front entrance. The sky is darkening, and the hotel’s lights are on. Valerio smiles and heads inside for dinner. The Super 8 may not be a home, but for now, it’s a place to come back to.