Philly’s coronavirus response

Philly disputes claims by COVID prevention hotel transplants that new housing lacks heat, hot water

Still waiting for permanent homes, several people moved from Center City are unhappy with their new surroundings.

On the left is Walker Hall, one of the 'community-based sites' used to temporarily house former COVID hotel residents

On the left is Walker Hall, one of the 'community-based sites' used to temporarily house former COVID hotel residents

Courtenay Harris Bond / Billy Penn
BALA CYNWYD, PA - JAN 12, 2019:  Courtenay Harris Bond and her husband Jeffery Bond stand in their renovated kitchen after a tree on their property fell on their home. "CREDIT: Will Figg for The Wall Street Journal"
TREES-Bond

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The last remaining residents at Philadelphia’s COVID prevention spaces were transferred Wednesday from their hotels to what Office of Homeless Services Director Liz Hersh has called “community-based sites.”

Darryl Hawkins was placed in such a site in North Philly two weeks ago. He described the layout as two buildings joined by a door that always remains locked.

To get outside, Hawkins said, he has to bang on the door and go through two sets of common areas full of people who aren’t always wearing masks, which strikes the 67-year-old as a possible fire hazard and COVID safety risk. He has prostate cancer, chronic back problems, glaucoma, and respiratory issues, which is why he moved to the city’s prevention hotel from the Parkway protest encampment this summer.

The city refuted worries about fire safety, while acknowledging some residents at the facility might not always wear face coverings.

There are emergency fire exits on each floor, said city spokesperson Deanna Gamble, adding that the locked door is part of a one-way route to ensure temperatures can be taken as people come and go. “The conditions at the community-based site in North Philadelphia adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines,” she said via email, noting that masks were encouraged.

“It’s not uncommon for members within the same household to be more lenient with mask wearing,” Gamble added. “This location feels like home for many — and we don’t want to take that feeling of being comfortable and mutual trust away.”

Former COVID prevention hotel resident James Hawkins

Former COVID prevention hotel resident Darryl Hawkins

Courtesy Darryl Hawkins

Shared bathrooms are another issue worrying Hawkins, who said that if he still had his tent and sleeping bag, he’d return to the streets. “I’m ready just to get out of here,” he said. “It’s affecting me sleep-wise, the stress.”

Others in his situation have echoed some of the same worries, or otherwise been upset by conditions presented when they were forced to move out of the COVID prevention hotel.

The hotel sites, opened by Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration in the spring to help vulnerable people self-quarantine, have shut down because federal funding via the CARES Act ends on Dec. 31, according to city officials.

The pending closure was known for months, and the city’s stated plan was to move as many people as possible into permanent homes. Of the two hundred-plus residents, several dozen are still on the waiting list and are now staying in temporary housing — which is raising new concerns.

The entrance to Walker Hall

The entrance to Walker Hall

Courtenay Harris Bond / Billy Penn

Residents complain basics are lacking, city maintains that’s not true

One of the temporary housing sites is a facility called Walker Hall, in Feltonville just north of Kensington. City records show it’s owned by CoreCivic, described on its website as a “national leader in high-quality corrections and detention management.”

The concrete building is surrounded by a fence. Each double-occupancy room has a tiny window, plus a window in the doorway so anyone walking the halls can see in. Some rooms lack working electrical outlets, according to people staying there, who also said they’ve been without heat or hot water.

Max Ray-Riek, an advocate with ACT UP Philadelphia, said he sent an email detailing some of the complaints to the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

“It’s beyond what I expected with the city,” Ray-Riek told Billy Penn. “I’m more disgusted with them than I have ever been.”

The claims about heat and hot water have made their way to City Hall. Officials say they’re simply not true.

“We … have verified that the building and rooms are warm, the heat is working well throughout and the showers are clean and have hot water,” spokesperson Gamble said. She suggested residents run the water a few minutes to let it get hot, “like in many Philly buildings,” and urged people to bring questions to on-site staff.

Stacie Miller, a 55-year-old who was put up at Walker Hall, said she suffers from COPD, fibromyalgia, heart problems, a bad back, and possible multiple sclerosis. She described trying to stay warm by wearing a sweater and socks and hovering under four blankets.

She said she and other residents reached out to and spoke with Councilmember Jamie Gauthier about the issues. Gauthier was not immediately available for comment.

Cindy Ross, 73, also described a lack of hot water and heat at Walker Hall. “I ain’t going to put up with that no more,” Ross said. She answered her phone as she was getting transported to an apartment, a permanent space, in Northeast Philadelphia.

Ross is one of the lucky ones.

A room at one of the city's 'community-bases sites'

A room at one of the city's 'community-bases sites'

Courtesy site resident

Standing on the street Christmas morning

All former COVID prevention site residents are still on the list for long-term housing, said city spokesperson Gamble, even if they decided they didn’t want to stay at the temp sites offered.

“Our guests are adults who make their own choices, which we honor, respect, and support,” Gamble said. “We are fully supportive of people making their own plans.”

Mary Dewes, 64, is waiting to get her housing voucher sorted out. She thought she had an apartment designated for her, but when she called the property manager there, he didn’t know what she was talking about, she said.

She chose to live with a neighbor temporarily rather than move into Walker Hall. Dewes said the North Philly facility was too far away from her many doctor’s appointments, considering the difficulty she has waiting for and riding the bus on a breathing machine.

Several passersby reported seeing Dewes and her breathing machine on Christmas morning, when she was standing outside the Center City prevention site hotel because she thought it was her day to move out.

Former COVID hotel resident Mary Dewes, who uses a breathing macine

Former COVID hotel resident Mary Dewes, who uses a breathing macine

Courtesy Mary Dewes

From the sidewalk, she was shuffled to three different places, soiling herself in the process, she said, before finally being brought back to the hotel for five more days. She left Wednesday with everyone else.

Judy Dennis, 70, who has trouble walking, was moved to the third-floor of what she described as “dormitories” at a Chinatown address connected to housing and assistance nonprofit Women of Excellence. She said the room was “filthy” when she arrived, so she attacked it with disinfectant wipes. She repeated the refrain about not having hot water. “This is the worst,” Dennis said.

Gamble said all the rooms were deep cleaned and painted. “Our social service providers made a tremendous effort to make the move as smooth as possible,” she said, adding that there’s a TV in every room, plus internet, a microwave and a fridge.

“We knew it would feel like a letdown after being in the hotel,” Gamble said. “The on-site staff are warm and supportive people who are doing everything in their power to make people feel welcome and settle in for the short time they will be there.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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