Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Until recently, Lowell Long didn’t have a place to himself for more than a year. These days, he gets to lay in bed, uninterrupted. In his room at Hotel Arboretum on Bladensburg Road NE, Long is able to take long, hot showers whenever he likes and sit on the toilet seat to think.
Using the bathroom at will is something many take for granted, as is some semblance of privacy in one’s own room. But for Long, who’s been living in his van or in homeless shelters for the past two years, privacy is a privilege that comes with staying in a hotel reserved for people who have come in contact with someone infected with COVID-19 or tested positive themselves. In Long’s case, it’s both. On April 24, he was moved from 801 East Men’s Shelter in Congress Heights to Hotel Arboretum after learning he was in close contact with a COVID-19 patient, and on May 1, he tested positive. Long says he doesn’t feel sick and is not experiencing any symptoms commonly associated with the disease.
A stay at one of the hotels the D.C. government has reserved for quarantine typically lasts between 10 and 14 days. Long, 44, has been living at the hotel for nearly a month, while he tries to get placed in a hotel where individuals who are vulnerable to severe illness related to COVID-19 due to age or preexisting health issues can stay indefinitely. The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has been advocating to D.C.’s Department of Human Services, the government body partly in charge of running the hotels, on Long’s behalf. He fears returning to 801 East Men’s Shelter, where he contracted COVID-19. It’s also where he was assaulted.
On April 5, a security guard allegedly assaulted Long in the parking lot at 801 East Men’s Shelter. The assault landed Long in the hospital. According to the police report, the security guard told Long “that’s why your mother suck my dick last night,” right before he struck him with a closed fist to his right check and the top of his head. Long says the security guard, who regularly worked at the shelter’s front entrance, was a bully who threatened to beat him up before the incident occurred.
“I don’t want to go back to that hell hole,” Long tells City Paper by phone from his hotel room.
Long says “it was always rough” at the shelter, but it “got crazy” once the pandemic hit the District nearly three months ago. Because there’s nothing to do—right now, 801 East Men’s Shelter residents are discouraged from leaving the shelter and there aren’t activities for them inside—some around Long resorted to using drugs, he says. When he was staying at the shelter, Long would lie in his bunk bed all day, watching Netflix on his phone or calling friends.
Long used to find relief from the shelter by going to the day services center downtown, where he ultimately signed up for Project Empowerment, a local government program that strives to move participants into the workforce. The program paused and the center closed, offering limited services by appointment only, during the public health emergency. When Long needed to momentarily escape the crowds during the emergency, he’d ride the bus, with no specific destination in mind.
As nice as the privacy of a hotel is, Long isn’t in paradise. He is under quarantine, though DHS isn’t holding anyone against their will. He doesn’t feel sick, but he says he looks it, since he hasn’t seen sunlight in weeks. Not only does he miss being outside, but he also wants to find work. He’s worried about paying his cellphone bill. His phone is one of his few connections to the outside world.
Long recently learned he would not get to stay in a hotel indefinitely. Instead, DHS is moving him into La Casa’s transitional housing program in Columbia Heights. He’s returning to another communal setting, where he has to share a bathroom and room again, albeit with fewer people than at 801 East.
Homeless advocates have long expressed concerns about the dismal living conditions at communal shelters. Individuals who’ve stayed there say violence and pest outbreaks at shelters have prompted them to live in tents on the street instead.
The pandemic further underscores how dangerous these shelters are and the need for more government investment in housing, advocates argue, but it’s unclear whether officials will learn from this moment. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 ends homelessness for 150 households,according to The Way Home, a campaign to end chronic homelessness in D.C. That represents 7 percent of what the campaign requested. The budget also makes cuts to programs that help individuals experiencing homelessness.
“While it is true that D.C. is experiencing unprecedented economic distress and uncertainty, this budget does not do enough to address the urgent needs of our neighbors living without housing, and does little to alter the status quo of D.C.’s homelessness crisis,” Jesse Rabinowitz, an advocacy and campaign manager with Miriam’s Kitchen, said in his written testimony for a May 22 budget oversight hearing. “Without action from the Council, over 1,650 households will likely continue to experience chronic homelessness.”
Nowadays, concerns among homeless advocates extend to the government practice of moving people back and forth between shelters and hotels, especially when congregate settings have become even more dangerous. Long was shuttled back to 801 East on May 8, but returned to his hotel room on the same day, once it was discovered that he had tested positive for COVID-19 eight days before. And while Long’s experience offers just one example of what life is like now for individuals experiencing homelessness, City Paper spoke with numerous individuals, who are homeless or advocates, that denounce the practice. Caitlin Cocilova, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic who’s been helping Long, says she knows of others who are worried about what will happen to them once they’re moved into hotels.
The Washington Legal Clinic, along with others, is calling on the mayor to offer a non-communal setting to anyone living in shelters or on the streets for as long as the public health emergency lasts, because the rates of infection are significantly higher among the unhoused population. As of May 26, 6 percent of individuals living in emergency shelters have tested positive for COVID-19, while 1 percent of D.C.’s total population has. At least 16 residents experiencing homelessness have died of COVID-19.Homeless shelters have been rather candid about not always being able to practice social distancing due to lack of space. Advocates are calling for creative solutions so D.C. doesn’t continue to spend up to$181 per night on hotel rooms. More than 100 Georgetown Law studentshave written to their dean, asking him to share vacant university housing with unhoused residents, and a fewpenned an op-ed in the Post, making the case that the Law Center should partner with shelters.
“No one should be in these communal settings right now if they don’t want to be,” Cocilova says. “There may be some people who want to stay in [a] shelter for various reasons. But the majority of people are being forced to live there, creating an environment that’s ripe for people to get sick again. And the fact that we are just cycling people back into communal shelters and allowing that to happen as policy is disgusting, in my opinion, and horrible for public health outcomes.”
DHS did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.
Jewel Stroman,who was formerly homeless and now advocates for those who are still unhoused, says she’s been hearing from women staying at Patricia Handy Place for Women in Ward 2 who can’t stay 6 feet away from one another. These women tell Stroman that there are upwards of 50 people living in a dormitory-style room. Stroman’s aunt became infected with COVID-19 while staying at the shelter, and just returned after a short stint at a hotel to quarantine. “The issue doesn’t make sense to us—when people in shelters get sick or infected, they pull them out and place them into quarantine. But then throw them back into shelter,” Stroman says. “It’s counterproductive.”
Advocates are especially concerned for individuals who have been moved to hotels because they were in close contact with someone who’s infected, but have yet to test positive themselves. They could get infected once they return to shelters, where practicing social distancing can be next to impossible.
Taylar Nuevelle was hearing similar complaints about social distancing from women who were staying at King Greenleaf Recreation Center, a shelter that’s usually only open between November and March, but that the government continued to use during the pandemic to create more space in the existing shelter system. Nuevelle, the founder of Who Speaks for Me?, a nonprofit that helps returning citizens, visited Greenleaf in early April to donate a phone to a woman who was staying there after being released early from a halfway house. When she got to Greenleaf, she says she saw a group of women huddled outside who said they did not have enough hygiene items, like soap and tampons. Following her first visit, sheposted on the DC Mutual Aid Network’s Facebook page requesting donations for the women at Greenleaf, and in the following weeks, she frequently visited the shelter so she could pass out donated items.
“There is no social distancing,” Nuevelle says. She describes a gym packed with side-by-side cots,, where the women ate and slept head to toe. “They could smell each other’s breath, that’s how close they were when they were eating,” she recalls.
During her visits to Greenleaf, Nuevelle met a woman named Ikea Warren, who was eight months pregnant and staying at the rec center. Nuevelle began to help Warren get items she would need for her baby. She also successfully helped Warren advocate for herself so she could leave the emergency shelter and move into the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE, a motel where the government places many homeless families.
“How is it?” Nuevelle asked Warren about the motel in an April 20 interview posted on Facebook. “It’s very clean. They are very nice here. They feed us about three times a day. It’s very relaxing,” Warren replied. “I feel so much more at peace, I feel more cared for, like a human being. When I was [at the shelter], I didn’t feel so much like a human being.” The setting didn’t feel safe for long. Warren learned that a resident and staff member at the motel tested positive for COVID-19. She was eventually able to move to another, newer shelterbefore she gave birth.
Greenleaf was recently shut down as a homeless shelter, along with another seasonal shelter at Malcolm X Recreation Center, because it’s being used as a polling center for the June 2 primary election. Nuevelle still keeps in touch with some of the women who have since been moved to Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter in Ward 7. The women—who’ve relied on Nuevelle to donate underwear, because they haven’t been able to do laundry for weeks, along with other hygiene items—tell her it’s too crowded to stay 6 feet apart. City Paperasked Bowser during a May 22 press conference whether the executive was securing another location for the residents who were staying at Greenleaf or Malcolm X to keep crowding in the existing shelter system at a minimum. Bowser wouldn’t directly respond to the question, only saying D.C. secured hotels for quarantine.
“The single people want to go to a hotel, they don’t want to be in these low-barrier shelters,” Nuevelle says. “The government is failing our most vulnerable.”
To begin reopening the city’s economy, officials are looking for a sustained decline in COVID-19 cases that do not account for communal settings like shelters. DC Healthargues there are strategies in place that confine cases, but movement among unhoused residents leaves doubt.
“I wish every person could have housing and, short of that, has a hotel room for the duration [of the pandemic], if they so choose,” Dr. Catherine Crosland tells City Paper. “But that’s not a reality at this minute.”
As the medical director for homeless outreach services at Unity Health Care, Crosland has been providing health care to individuals experiencing homelessness since before the pandemic. She used to care for these individuals on the streets or in clinics, but now she’s also seeing them at the hotels the government reserved to respond to COVID-19. Crosland is in charge of the medical care at these hotels. In this role, she’s advocating for universal testing for individuals experiencing homelessness, which still isn’t happening, and believes everyone should be in a hotel, because communal settings aren’t safe. “That would take an incredible amount of investment and not just monetary, but human investment, to run the places,” Crosland adds.
Crosland acknowledges the work DHS is doing to create quarantine hotels in two months. “The quarantine sites are not perfect in any means,” she says. “But these are DHS employees, many who haven’t done direct services and are dealing with issues that are really, really challenging and difficult sometimes, and doing it with incredible grace.”
The benefits of housing individuals in hotels as opposed to communal shelters is clear when Crosland checks on them. She recalls one of her patients who was proactively moved into a hotel due to his age and medical status. (The criteria to be in a hotel is to be over 65 or have a medical condition that makes catching COVID-19 significantly more complicated.) “He just looked wonderful,” she says. Hotels for vulnerable individuals are less restrictive than hotels for patients under strict quarantine, she says, so residents of the hotel are able to use the common areas. It could feel like a retirement community because of the demographic staying there, she adds.
Rosalind Ellington, 58, was moved from the Patricia Handy shelter into a hotel because of a medical condition. “I don’t have to worry about going to the bathroom and cleaning somebody’s stuff all over the place at the toilet or shower. I don’t have to deal with that black mold from that ceiling and the elevator breaking down,” she says of her experience at the hotel. She has a mobility disability, which has made the last two years in the shelter system especially challenging. At one point, she was on the second floor of the Patricia Handy, despite needing a walker to get around.
“This is nice,” Ellington says. “Maybe I can get more help this way.”