|Cherell Manuel, one of 300 Sandy evacuees the city is trying to evict from her hotel|
Since May, New York City officials have been trying to evict over 300 people from the hotels where they’ve been staying for nearly a year, after becoming homeless during Hurricane Sandy. The city says the hotel program has cost $73 million in FEMA funds so far and that now that FEMA has stopped reimbursing the city, they can’t afford to shoulder the cost on their own. The Sandy evacuees will have to go into homeless shelters.
But at a press conference Friday on the steps of City Hall organized by New York Communities for Change, a couple dozen of those evacuees made it clear they weren’t going anywhere without a fight. “They act like we asked to be here,” says Cherell Manuel, 46, formerly of Far Rockaway. She and her four children have been at the Manhattan at Times Square Hotel for the past three months, their third hotel this year. “We’re victims of a devastation.”
Attorneys from the Legal Aid Society have been representing the Sandy evacuees in court against the city; five days ago, Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chan, siding with the city, said the program could end September 30. The rooms are paid for through Friday. Legal Aid attorney Judith Goldiner says that on Friday morning, “It’s not that someone’s going to come to their doors [to forcibly evict them], because that would be illegal. They’ve been there for more than 30 days, so they can’t come with police and throw them out.” Instead, she said, the city is just going to stop paying the hotel bill. “For a lot of people, that leaves them on the hook for a bill they can’t afford.”
In any case, Manuel says, it’s not as though she wants to stay in a hotel. She describes the hotel management as “nasty,” says hotel staff has stolen her belongings, and that they refuse to provide refrigerators in the rooms of the Sandy evacuees. “They want us moved out,” Manuel says. But without another place to go, “I’m staying. I’m not going to work that day, even. We have our rights to be there.”
“We didn’t ask for this,” said Shawn Little, another woman from the Rockaways, told a crowd of reporters. “We were living perfectly fine. We were normal people with jobs and homes. We want to get back to where we were, the lives we had.” She said many of the landlords in her area had driven up the rents after the storm, making it harder to find housing. In the meantime, she said, the city was acting “like we struck it rich,” like staying in a hotel was some sort of luxury.
“They stuck us in tourist attractions and we’re being disrespected by hotel staff,” she said, adding that she’s still “devastated” by the proposed eviction. “I need two weeks, that’s it,” she said. She’s signed a lease on a new place, she says. “My ink is on the paper, I’m just waiting for it to dry.”
On Friday, she said, “I’m not going to do anything. I’m going to sit there and watch the news.” As she spoke, several other women behind her started up a chant of “Hell no, we won’t go!” (A few minutes later, mindful of all that press, they modified that to “Heck no.”)
City Councilmember Donovan Richards said that many of the 300 remaining evacuees have housing vouchers, and need only a few more weeks before they can move into new homes. Others without vouchers still shouldn’t be shunted into what he called “a homeless system already bursting at the seams.” A representative from the Coalition for the Homeless, Patrick Marquee, agreed that the idea was “crazy,” especially at a time when the city is already seeing a rise in homelessness he called “unprecedented.”
Councilmember Richards called on the Bloomberg administration to step in and extend the program for a few more weeks. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t do what’s right for the people of New York City,” he added, adding, a few moments later, “May we treat people the way we would want to be treated, because you never know when karma’s going to come around.” Behind him, the Sandy evacuees cheered and loudly agreed. “I warn you today, life is funny. And what goes around comes around.”