In the fight against the spread of COVID-19, Philadelphia has employed hotels as COVID Prevention Spaces to house homeless, elderly and health-compromised populations. One such space, the Holiday Inn Express at 13th and Walnut streets, is scheduled to cease providing that service today. The hotel has served as a shelter for the homeless since April.
A letter from Daiquiri Robinson, director of Long Term Housing, dated November 16, 2020 distributed to occupants of the hotel states: “The last night to stay in the COVID Prevention Space Program is Monday, December 14, 2020. The hotel is closing for this program on Tuesday, December 15, 2020.”
A snowstorm that blasted the Northeast the night of December 16 forced the hotel’s eviction date to be delayed.
The expectation for both residents and the city was that the hotel would serve as a transition to permanent housing. “I thought I was getting an apartment, that’s what the letter said … that’s what the city said,” says Mary Elizabeth Dews, 64, an occupant of the hotel.
The city’s Director of Homeless Services Liz Hersh says that every person staying at the hotel has received a housing assessment with a case manager and they are in the process of transitioning people out of the hotel.
According to Hersh, “a number of people have already moved out to permanent units, [but] not everyone has seen their apartment yet.”
For those who haven’t moved yet, the city has set up community-based COVID Prevention Spaces.
Dews has not yet seen an apartment and expects to be relocated to another prevention space. “I heard something like 6th & Luzerne [streets]. It used to be a halfway house when you’re out of prison,” says Dews. Dews expresses a wariness of the system, mentioning a previous struggle for permanent housing dating back to 2017.
Dews, who suffers from mesothelioma and requires an oxygen tank, stood outside of the Holiday Inn as protesters and police clashed on Thursday, December 10. Organizer and founding member of Club Sandwich Philly, Veronica Carden, 31, says “I am camping outside of the hotel to protect those living inside from a forceful eviction, [and] to raise awareness for Philadelphia’s ongoing housing crisis.”
Despite the freezing weather, she and others camped outside the Center City hotel for nearly a week.
The Mayor’s Office says they are shutting down the hotel program because the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund expires at the end of December 2020.
“The federal government has not done their part,” says Hersh. Millions of dollars in CARES Act funds that were intended for housing were diverted from the Pandemic Mortgage Assistance Program and the rent assistance program toward Pennsylvania’s state budget last month.
The hotel is now scheduled to be cleared of its occupants in January. While Dews and housing activists are skeptical, Hersh says the city is committed to providing long-term housing for Philadelphia’s homeless population.
“[W]e promised we would have long-term housing for everyone in the COVID Prevention Spaces and that we don’t want them to return to homelessness. We are keeping our promise to them,” says Hersh.
On Friday morning, December 18, some residents of the hotel received notice that their move was postponed until after December 21. However, other residents did not receive that notice and were relocated to St. Ambrose Church on Roosevelt Boulevard in North Philadelphia. That same morning, activist Veronica Carden was arrested outside of the hotel on multiple charges, including “obstructing a highway” and “disturbing the peace.”