Homeless refl ect on life in a NYC
hotel room, one year later
Nunu Jefferson and Ashley Belcher in their hotel room on the Lower East Side, April 29, 2021.
BY CLAUDIA IRIZARRY APONTE
Since last April, thousands of homeless
New Yorkers in the city’s shelter
system have been staying in formerly
private hotels — a need brought on by the
Mayor Bill de Blasio has set July 1 as
the day the city is expected to fully reopen
amid rising vaccination rates and decreasing
infections. That’s also the day the city
has suggested it will complete its transition
of people from hotels back to the homeless
shelter system, where people were 61% more
likely to die of COVID than anywhere else at
the height of the pandemic last spring.
Advocates for the homeless have criticized
the planned return, noting that on Jan. 21,
President Joe Biden extended an executive
order mandating that FEMA reimburse all
costs relating to emergency management of
“non-congregate shelters” until September.
As the city moved people from shelters
to city-contracted hotels last year, advocates
with the #HomelessCantStayHome campaign
raised funds to place up to 30 people into
private hotels. As THE CITY reported, those
once homeless New Yorkers had a very different
experience than the more than 12,000
placed in hotels set up by City Hall.
THE CITY recently caught up with some
of those staying in rooms funded by the
campaign and asked them to refl ect on the
impact of residing in a private space after life
on the streets or in shelters.
The simple dignity of having a clean bed
and a shower of their own meant they could
spend the past year working, going to school
and getting their health in order. Otherwise,
their days would have been fi lled with worries
about where to eat, sleep or relieve
themselves next amid the pandemic.
Now they’re scrambling to fi nd housing
with vouchers from the city, hoping to avoid
a return to the streets or shelters.
Here are some of their stories. Responses
have been lightly edited for length and
Before the coronavirus ravaged New
York last spring, Wolford, 35, worked as an
upholsterer by day and slept in the city’s subways,
by night. He moved into a hotel on the
Lower East Side provided by the Homeless
Can’t Stay Home campaign in April 2020.
“Before the pandemic, I made money, but
not enough to afford a place to live in New
York City. And it’s hard to focus on work
and on fi nding gigs when you’re sleeping on
the street. I was in the Fedcap program and
they were helping me fi nd jobs and apply to
school, and that helped a lot. But being here
is what made the difference.
“I got a computer and started taking some
free Microsoft cybersecurity courses. Now
I’m just three credits away from the fi nal
exam. I didn’t even know what a ‘command
prompt’ was a year ago!
“But the main thing now is fi nding an
actual apartment, because this hotel thing
won’t last forever. I have a voucher, I got it
last year, but it’s hard to fi nd an apartment
in New York with what I have now. The city
gives up to $1,200 a month, and you can’t
sublet — it has to be your own apartment.
You try fi nding an apartment, or even a
PHOTOS BY HIRAM ALEJANDRO DURAN
studio, for that kind of money these days.
It’s just really hard.
“Living in the hotel has been a real confi
dence boost. It’s been the fi rst and only bit
of stability since I became homeless. I can
fi nally be a regular person again.”
Ashley Belcher and
Ashley Belcher, 28, and Wiaheed
“Nunu” Jefferson, 36, have been living in
a Lower East Side hotel room since April
Jeff Wolford in his hotel room, April 6, 2021.
2020. Belcher is originally from Carbondale,
Pa., and has drifted in and out of
homelessness for most of her life. Jefferson
is a native New Yorker.
“I’m doing good now. Once we settled into
the hotel I started taking care of myself. I
can go to the doctor now, which means I can
get my prescriptions for my irritable bowel
syndrome and ulcerative colitis. I also went
to the dentist, which I hadn’t been to in so
many years. I could never go to the doctor
when we lived outside. I can do these things
because I don’t have to worry about where
I’m going to be or where I’m going to sleep
‘This hotel is the biggest thing that has
ever happened to us.’
“Since I’m in the hotel, I can be creative
and take up hobbies. A few weeks ago I went
to Target and bought a tie-dye kit. We buy
shirts at the Salvation Army and we dyed
them with the kit, and we sell them on Second
Avenue and Delancey. So we have our
little side hustle there…
“Our biggest challenge now is fi nding an
apartment. The hotel is nice but we need our
own space. We have a bed and we have a
private bathroom, for example, but we don’t
have a kitchen. So we still have to buy most
of our meals.
“I want to become an addiction counselor.
My mom passed away in March after a long
battle with addiction. I want to be able to
help other people.”
“Landing this hotel was a big change for
me right there, this has been the biggest thing
so far for me in my life. It’s opened my eyes to
all the different possibilities in life.
“I went to work. I’m still doing my gigs
in construction and like handymen work,
and we’re selling tie-dye shirts on Second
“But I also help out in the hotel — I sweep
up the halls, I take out the trash. In the past
year, I’ve shoveled snow, I’ve cleaned out
“I do all that because I want to show management
and all the people who are here that
I’m clean, that I’m stable, that I take care of
myself. That I can keep myself clean, I can
keep my building clean. I try to show them
that I’m fi t to live here.”
This story was fi rst published on May 10,
2021 by THE CITY.
18 May 13, 2021 Schneps Media