Unsheltered in Place

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
So, I’m talking with Katie Mingle, our senior producer. And you’ve been reporting for about a year and a half on homelessness here in the Bay Area for a series that we’re putting together right now. It’s not ready. It’s scheduled to come out at the end of the year but since the coronavirus crisis has a huge impact on the unhoused population. We wanted to check in.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. So basically, just as I was starting to wrap up the reporting process, the coronavirus came and it upended everything for everyone. And I’ve been struggling with how or whether to follow any of what’s been happening in terms of COVID and homelessness. So, not really knowing what I would do with any of it, I just started kind of checking in with people just over the phone and in Zoom and whatnot, trying to at least kind of keep up with it all. And I was recording those conversations and I decided that some of them felt worth sharing.

Roman Mars:
And it seems that homeless people are one of the populations that people are talking about as being particularly vulnerable to this disease.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, so based on data that researchers already have about age and underlying health conditions in homeless people, a study from a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and UCLA found that homeless people would be twice as likely to be hospitalized as the general population, two to four times as likely to require critical care and two to three times as likely to die if they contracted COVID-19.

Roman Mars:
And it seems like some of the places where homeless people are the most visible, like the encampments and the shelters, are really potential petri dishes for a disease like this to spread.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, I mean social distancing is basically impossible in a shelter. And I think like all over the country, people are scrambling to prevent large scale outbreaks in homeless communities. I only know about what’s happening in California. And yeah, I just wanted to share a few voices from that struggle, I guess we’ll call it.

Jen Loving:
“The thing that is upside-down about this is normally when there’s a disaster, we work backwards. There’s an earthquake, we work backwards. There’s a flood, we work backwards. The thing happens and then we’re getting ourselves out of it. This every day we go deeper in. I don’t know where the bottom is.”

Katie Mingle:
That’s Jen Loving. She’s the CEO of an organization called “Destination: Home” that in regular times works on both ending and preventing homelessness in Santa Clara County.

Roman Mars:
And Santa Clara County is like San Jose and Palo Alto and Cupertino. It’s basically when people say Silicon Valley, they mean Santa Clara County.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. And Jen’s agency, Destination: Home, has been around since 2008. But during this pandemic, it’s basically been conscripted into this chain of command that’s been activated at the county level through something called the Emergency Operations Center. And every county in California has one of these.

Jen Loving:
“So, the Emergency Operations Center, or the EOC, gets activated when there’s an earthquake, flood, some sort of things. With the very first time though that – and I’ve been a part of an activation a couple of times in my career – this is the first time, though, that it was activated for a pandemic, which basically means that the Santa Clara County Public Health Department is in charge. If you’re working in homelessness, you’re not doing things on your own anymore, meaning supply chain, money, systems – everything gets deployed through this EOC.”

Katie Mingle:
Jen is essentially working under the direction of the public health department on a few different things. And those things include opening up mass shelters so that existing shelters can be less crowded, bringing sanitation and medical care and resources to encampments, and then also setting up partnerships with hotels where homeless people can potentially be quarantined.

Jen Loving:
“And then the last piece is trying to mitigate the financial catastrophe. If we can keep families from becoming homeless right now, there’s a far better chance of recovery later. So, we have to do, I think, we have to do a few things and I think those things are happening. We have to have eviction moratorium. Everywhere needs to have one. We need to make sure that there’s food – free food accessible. I think this is also already happening. But like utilities, they need to stay on. Don’t care, people don’t pay. They gotta stay on. And I believe that’s also happening.”

Katie Mingle:
When she says she believes that’s happening, I just want to clarify that she means in her county. So that’s obviously different wherever you live in the United States.

Katie Mingle:
The other really big thing Jen has been working on setting up is a fund. She raised $11 million very quickly to distribute to people who had lost employment and were at risk of becoming homeless.

Roman Mars:
I mean, it seems like… I mean, that’s a success. They raised a lot of money in a short amount of time. Is that enough?

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. I mean, I thought that sounded like a lot too, but it actually it wasn’t nearly enough.

Jen Loving:
“Within three hours, we had 1,400 applications. They were coming in at two applications every minute. They crashed our server and within three days there were more than $11 million worth of qualifying applications.”

Katie Mingle:
“Yeah. You wrote in a tweet, ‘I feel scared in a way that’s hard to describe.’”

Jen Loving:
“Gosh, it’s true. It’s true, sister. And I’m not a chicken. I walk into the middle of the suffrage for years, and the scale is overwhelming. People already – already – have no money left. Nothing.”

Katie Mingle:
Jen estimates that they need about 100 million dollars, and that’s again just in Santa Clara County, to keep people housed during this time.

Roman Mars:
And this is on top of the stimulus and unemployment checks. And that’s still not going to be enough.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, I mean, for one, those checks still haven’t gotten to people for the most part. I think the first round of them is supposed to go out this week. But it sounds like it could be a while before everyone has their check. And then there are some people who won’t be eligible for those benefits. Undocumented people, for example.

Roman Mars:
And so, have they been able to distribute the first $11 million that they gathered?

Katie Mingle:
Jen said some of it had started going out, but not all of it. I mean, it’s a lot of work to process all of those applications and get all those checks out. And one of the problems they’re running up against right now is that their volunteer support has dried up. And that’s, you know, that’s not just in their organization that’s happening in every organization.

Jen Loving:
“So, if you think about most communities have a Meals on Wheels program and what that is, is homebound people, vulnerable people, people can’t leave their home, there’s meals that are prepared and delivered to them every day. Super cool, right? That is a 95% volunteer-run situation. So, when all volunteers disappear all at once… Right?”

Katie Mingle:
I think people are probably having trouble knowing, like how they should balance social distancing and volunteering.

Jen Loving:
“You know, that’s a good question. So, I will say that I think that’s a personal choice. But what I will tell you is people that are already working on the front lines are, in addition to that work, now delivering meals. Because here’s the thing, it also has to be done. And COVID is asking us to do all of the things we were doing before and a thousand more things, with less. And if you are able to be part of a solution, you need to get on being part of that solution. And if that means money, or if that means sewing a mask, or if that means stay at home and not, like, complaining, you know? It means all of those things because people who are the lowest-paid workers in this nation, who are largely people of color, are out on the goddamn front lines.”

Katie Mingle:
The last thing I wanted to ask Jen about in the 30 minutes I stole from her was… I don’t know if you’ve been seeing these pictures of homeless people being moved into parking lots and stadiums?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, there was a picture from Las Vegas where they had… a grid was painted out to mark how far they should be camping like away from each other. Otherwise, it was just like an open parking lot. There was no coverage. There is no real shelter. It just was designated spaces on the ground.

Katie Mingle:
Yes. Yeah. Which they did because a resident in a 500-bed shelter had tested positive COVID and so they needed to get everyone out of that space to prevent the virus from spreading. So they moved people into this open-air parking lot. I think they’ve since been moved back inside. But I just wondered what she thought of that or things like that.

Katie Mingle:
“I guess I wonder from your perspective, when you see something like that or you kind of like, ‘yep, it’s a crazy time, people are coming up with crazy solutions’ or does that strike you as like ‘we should be able to do way better than that’?”

Jen Loving:
“You know, I think now, look… (sigh) pre-COVID America has treated homelessness in every kind of reprehensible way. Right now, though, the people that are trying to do the things that you’re describing, I’m not criticizing them because this is hell. If that’s the best they can do, that must be the best they can do. We are not doing that. Right? But I am in no position to criticize other communities because, you know, we don’t have every homeless person in a stable place. We’re sheltering in encampments. That is totally wrong, you know what I mean? But we can’t… We have asked America to give us more places for homeless people for, you know, my whole career. Now they’re telling us all to do it in a week. It’s amazing.”

Katie Mingle:
“Well, thank you so much for your time.”

Jen Loving:
“Yeah, I gotta go. I gotta go, sister. But yeah, check in with me and whatever you feel like… (inaudible) …”

Katie Mingle:
“Yeah. And best of luck out there.”

Jen Loving:
“Hey, thanks so much.”

Roman Mars:
One of the things you said Jen was trying to do was securing hotel rooms for homeless people. Is that part of the governor’s program?

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. So, on April 3rd, Governor Newsom announced something that he called “Project Roomkey”. He said he had secured almost 7,000 hotel rooms for homeless people and that they were on their way to getting 15,000.

Gavin Newsom:
“It’s a county-state partnership with the county fundamentally driving the car and the state of California building the car. We put together the technical teams of expertise. We are working with the counties as they identify these sites to get the operating agreements up and running.”

Katie Mingle:
So, yeah, when he says that counties are driving the car, he means these emergency operation centers and people like Jen who are out there, you know, making calls to hotel owners to get them to agree to rent rooms to the state.

Roman Mars:
And he’s talking about 15,000 rooms across the entire state. And that, again, sounds like it’s a lot. But I know for a fact that that’s not enough.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, exactly, because there are at least 150,000 homeless people in California which is why in some places you have activists calling on mayors to do more. So, on April 3rd, actually the same day as that Newsom press conference, there was a protest in San Francisco. It was a car protest, which is one of the amazing new things that we have in this new pandemic era, where a bunch of people drove their cars to this convention center in San Francisco where the city was planning on housing homeless people sort of on the floor, on mats. And the people in cars sat outside of this convention center honking in protest. They thought that people shouldn’t be sheltered together in this big open area, but instead put into hotel rooms. And they were urging the mayor to use her power to get hotel rooms for people.

News Report:
“A caravan of cars circled San Francisco’s Moscone Center while Mayor London Breed and city officials held a virtual press conference inside. The message still loud and clear at this socially distant protest.” (cars honking)

News Report:
“Police have blocked off Howard in front of Moscone…”

Katie Mingle:
I talked to this sociologist named Chris Herring, who was part of that protest movement to get more hotel rooms and he says the mayor, London Breed, has the authority to commandeer hotel rooms in an emergency.

Roman Mars:
So, they have the power to do it. Why aren’t they doing it?

Katie Mingle:
I mean, it’s a power that they don’t use very often. They say that it’s too expensive to put every single homeless person in a hotel. They also say that it’s much more complicated than you might think to move people into hotels. Like you have to have all this supportive staff who will provide food and services and clean the rooms. You can’t just like move people in, and that’s it.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, totally.

Katie Mingle:
But after that protests, the city did decide not to use the convention center as a mass shelter. And Mayor Breed said she’s negotiating to bring 7,000 more hotel rooms into use specifically for homeless people in San Francisco.

Roman Mars:
And so, in terms of the hotel rooms that do exist, either in San Francisco or more generally across the state, who is getting into those?

Katie Mingle:
So not nearly all of those hotels have been filled yet. It’s hard to get numbers on this, but some sources are saying that something close to 2,000 rooms across the state have been filled. I think most of the focus so far has been on shelters. So, if there’s a shelter where there’s a positive case, they’re putting people from that shelter who they think may have been exposed into hotels. Part of the criticism right now from advocates is that it’s sort of a reactive approach instead of a proactive one, meaning that instead of just immediately putting all homeless people into hotels, they’re waiting for cases to break out in shelters. And it’s also very much a referral-based system. So, if you think you have COVID, you still have to be referred to a hotel room by an approved medical or outreach worker. It’s sort of it’s almost like getting a prescription for a hotel room.

Katie Mingle:
Last Friday, the 10th of April, Mayor Breed announced that there had been a major outbreak of coronavirus in a shelter in San Francisco. The last numbers I saw were that 92 residents and 10 workers had tested positive. But those numbers will probably keep going up. In any case, according to The New York Times, it’s the biggest outbreak in a shelter so far in the US.

Roman Mars:
So right now, some of the people in shelters are going into hotels, but only if they’ve been exposed to the virus. But that doesn’t account for all the people in the encampments. What are they doing?

Katie Mingle:
I was wondering about this. Like how much outreach is happening in encampments? Are people checking on folks outside or testing folks outside? I haven’t been going into the field much lately for the same reasons that we’re all staying home. But I decided I wanted to try and talk to a few people in an encampment. So I put on gloves and a mask and I went out to a camp in Berkeley where I’ve spent a good bit of time.

Katie Mingle:
“Hi, oh hey Shauna.”

“Shauna: Hey, I know you. This is Katie. Come on in. How you’ve been?”

Katie Mingle:
“I’ve been okay. How are you?”

Shauna:
“Alive!”

Katie Mingle:
“So that’s Shauna sitting outside of her tent with her friend Jade. Shauna lives in encampment with about 60 other people, mostly in tents. And they said that a nurse practitioner and a social worker had just been out to the camp.”

Katie Mingle:
“And when were they here?”

Jade:
“Just probably 20, maybe 20, 30 minutes ago.”

Katie Mingle:
“And were they just kind of checking to see if anybody had been sick or anything?”

Shauna:
“Yeah, they’ve been coming out a couple times a week. Come check up on everyone out here.”

Katie Mingle:
Shauna said the one guy from the encampment had shown symptoms of COVID-19 and one of the outreach workers made sure he got tested and into a hotel. But it seemed like that was the only person so far that had gone to a hotel out there.

Katie Mingle:
“Do you guys feel like you’re doing any extra like hand-washing or…”

Jade:
“I’ve done hand-washing.”

Shauna:
“A bit more yeah. Been using the hand sanitize more or at least trying to keep the hands a little bit clean.”

Jade:
“I’ve been washing up in a bucket. Like, I don’t care. I gotta stay up on my hygiene somehow.”

Roman Mars:
And how nervous is everyone there seemed to be about all this?

Katie Mingle:
I was wondering that. I asked that too.

Katie Mingle:
“Do you feel like you’re stressed out about the virus?”

Shauna:
“So much about the virus, just life in general.”

Jade:
“There’s other things to be stressing about.”

Katie Mingle:
“What do you feel like is the main thing you’re stressed about right now?”

Jade:
“Being poor and not being mentally able to work all the time and being like stable? I relapsed. I was a year and a half clean and I relapsed, so…”

Shauna:
“Don’t feel bad, I relapsed after 14 years.”

Jade:
“So I feel like a failure right now. And then all this other stuff’s going on, so it’s just like it’s hard to focus on that when I relapsed.”

Katie Mingle:
This camp actually has, sort of relative to other camps, a good bit of outreach. There’s a couple clinics who send workers there and they have this one extremely dedicated activist named Andrea Hensen, who’s out there almost every day. Andrea’s been raising money through a GoFundMe and handing out things like hand sanitizer and facemasks.

Andrea Hensen:
“What are they, balaclavas?”

Katie Mingle:
“Balaclavas?”

Andrea Hensen:
“Yeah, I call them baklavas…” (laughs)

Katie Mingle:
A lot of the ways that homeless people make money are not possible right now. People used to collect cans to sell at recycling centers and those centers are mostly closed. Panhandling is more difficult right now. So lately, Andrea has had to bring food to the encampment.

Andrea Hensen:
“You know, I never had to provide food before. And I just handed out… I mean, we prepped 300 bags of groceries. I’m not a food distribution person, but I had to be because people tell me they’re hungry.”

Katie Mingle:
She also recently rented a Bobcat to try to get all the trash out of the encampment. And she’s been paying some of the people around there to help. Again, just all through a GoFundMe.

Andrea Hensen:
“We have to get this trash picked up because in order to mitigate this health crisis in the camp, you know, I’m buying new tents for people, but we’re putting them in filthy places. Where installing porta potties in filthy places.”

Katie Mingle:
So a lot of dedicated people out there working really, really hard right now. But, you know, like Jen said, there are thousands of homeless people in California. And now, you know, everyone wants this all to be solved like yesterday. So, it’s tough.

Andrea Hensen:
“If you wanna do any work and get it done, whenever you’re ready, then I’ll pay you. I have the garbage bags… We’ll clean all the trash on the corner. Go do your thing.”

Andrea Hensen:
“Hi Grant! Yeah. Ok, well, get ready. We’re going to move all the trash.”

Andrea Hensen:
“So, I also started a job program and I’m gonna pay people minimum wage.”

Andrea Hensen:
“You do the work now and I’ll give you minimum wage. You just tell me what time you start…”

Roman Mars:
Our “Unhoused” series will be out at the end of the year. If you want to find out more about any of the people or organizations we mentioned in this episode or how you can help or get involved, go to our website. It’s 99pi.org.

Roman Mars:
While doing the research for this episode, Katie’s assistant producer Abby Madan ran across a historian who studied the role that hotels have played in times of crisis. Katie Mingle will be back to talk about that after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
From her apartment in Oakland, here again, is Katie Mingle.

Katie Mingle:
San Francisco and other cities are looking to repurpose vacant hotels to shelter unhoused people during this coronavirus outbreak, but this isn’t the first time hotels have been used as crucial infrastructure in times of crisis. I wanted to find out more about the history of people repurposing hotels this way, so I called up Kenneth Morrison.

Kenneth Morrison:
Hello, my name is Kenneth Morrison and I’m a professor of modern European history and I’m based in De Montfort University in Leicester in the United Kingdom.

Katie Mingle:
And so why is it that hotels, in particular, are deployed in this kind of way? Like, what is it about a hotel that makes it very useful in a moment like this?

Kenneth Morrison:
I mean, hotels in many respects are perfect for being repurposed in the way that they are right now. So if you think about the microstructure of a hotel, you have large kitchens, you know, lots of refrigeration. You have supply chains. So basically, the hotel can continue to function. It might not be serving the same food or it might not be serving the same drinks or whatever, but it can continue to function. It works. And if you think about the internal structure of a hotel, most hotels have got a quite large atrium. So, you know, atriums can be used as places where medical personnel perhaps are based or seeing people as they come in. And all of the rooms function as these kind of isolation units, because when people go and stay in hotels, you know, perhaps they just got married or they’re, you know, couples going away for a weekend without the children or whatever. There is, you know, a certain amount of privacy required. So, of course, that means that every room has to be kind of insulated and isolated.

Kenneth Morrison:
And in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s perfect because you have these huge corridors where food can be left outside the door and the person can be left within this kind of isolated unit, which is the room. And the room, of course, always has ensuite facilities so they can shower in the room, they can wash, they can sleep, they can watch television, they have access to the Internet. So being used as a quarantine center, hotels do that particularly effectively. And if you think of other buildings that might be used as quarantine centers, sports halls, for example, those sports halls have to be internally reconstructed in order to become quarantine centers or field hospitals. Actually, you have to do a lot less of that in a hotel. So hotel functions really well. It can be repurposed very, very quickly.

Katie Mingle:
Can you talk a little bit about how hotels were repurposed during the recent European refugee crisis?

Kenneth Morrison:
Yes, in the case of the migrant/refugee crisis in 2015/2016, of course, you had millions of people coming to the European continent and sometimes they had to be held in camps, but other times they would be held in hotels. So they would be kept in hotels. There are various different examples of this. The biggest example of this is what happened in Germany, because, of course, the vast majority of those migrants that were seeking to leave places like Libya and Syria in 2015/2016 were heading for Germany.

Kenneth Morrison:
When Angela Merkel essentially said that refugees/migrants are welcome. She was then faced with the problem of, well, what do we do with these sheer number of people and we have to hold them somewhere. And the German government actually entered into a number of contracts, agreements with large hotel groups so that the refugees would be housed there. And they were housed there for a short time until they could be genuinely kind of incorporated into society. They could get jobs. They could then perhaps then look for apartments of their own and so forth. But the hotel in that context played a really important role in managing that immediate crisis. And that given the sheer numbers of people that arrived in Germany at that time has actually been a relative success story. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the hotels and the rule that the hotel played and that huge movement of people.

Katie Mingle:
And were the hotels still kind of like hotels or were they so were they more like apartments where there wasn’t necessarily a counter where you check-in…? How was it different when the refugees were housed in these places?

Kenneth Morrison:
So basically, there were two types of hotels. There were the ones that were completely taken over, essentially government contract. German government paid Grand City hotels for the use of these 22 hotels in Berlin, for example. And if what it meant was that the German government were giving to the hotel industry the finance for that so that they could continue to operate. So the hotel, for them, it guaranteed more or less 100 percent occupancy rates, but they weren’t really functioning as hotels at that time. They weren’t, you know, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And many of the staff that worked there continued to work there. They were cleaning. They were making food for the refugees and so forth. But it wasn’t functioning as a normal hotel.

Kenneth Morrison:
However, there were other hotels that we’re actually allowing refugees to work there and training them and giving them skills that would make it possible for them to enter into work within German society. This happened in Germany, in Austria and Belgium. The refugees were given an opportunity to train as barman, you know, to train as waiters, doing silver service and so forth. So they needed to train and do something that would allow them to make a living very, very quickly. And again, the hotel plays this very important role.

Katie Mingle:
And did you hear stories about kind of what these places were like? It strikes me as potentially hard to kind of suddenly turn a hotel into this very different function. Did you hear stories of just like what it was like? Like how did they feed people…? How did it work?

Kenneth Morrison:
The difficulty with redeploying a hotel like that, and this was much less the case in Germany, but in other places, locals were very suspicious of a large hotel being taken over and used as a place to host refugees. So in Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, for example, you had a number of hotels that were redeployed in this way and lots of luxury hotels were built in Ireland prior to the economic crash of 2008. And of course, after 2008, there wasn’t a market. There simply wasn’t a market for them. So the hoteliers had to find a way to use the space that they had, so many of these hotels were used as places to house refugees.

Kenneth Morrison:
Sometimes there was a lot of suspicion coming from local populations who weren’t happy about this. They felt that putting refugees in a hotel was not an effective way to bring them into the society. You were basically isolating them from society and it created this kind of ‘us and them’ feeling. But these were only ever intended to be temporary spaces – three months, six months. It was part of a kind of wider redistribution program where the refugees wouldn’t stay in the hotel for too long. They would be moved on quite quickly. But within the hotels themselves – no, they weren’t functioning as ordinary hotels. There was catering there because that was part of the agreement with the governments, that there would be catering for the new guests. But it wouldn’t have been anything like the kind of service that a normal hotel would provide in normal times.

Katie Mingle:
Right. And then did some of those hotels go back to being sort of normal tourist hotels after?

Kenneth Morrison:
They did because, of course, once the economic situation began to improve and in Europe after 2008, you had the Euro crisis. And by 2014, you have the beginning of this refugee crisis. But really by 2016, the European economies are a bit more stable and many of these hotels go back to being exactly what they were intended to be.

Katie Mingle:
And is there anything about that process of converting back that was interesting? Like they probably have to kind of clean in and maybe refurbish some of the rooms? I don’t know. Is there a process?

Kenneth Morrison:
Yes, but it is actually extremely business-like. And this is what’s so interesting about the transitions that these buildings go through. Yes, of course, there will have been the need to redecorate probably. That was part of the contract with the German government. For example, there was a slice of money in there for that redecoration to take place at the end because they knew that obviously it wouldn’t be perhaps kept in the same ways as it would have been when functioning as a normal hotel. But they just moved back to being the spaces that they were and used for the purpose that they were intended for. These are business arrangements in essence, what we’ve seen in the case of the refugee crisis in Europe. The building is needed for a specific period of time. Various hotels are offered. The German government sign or German-Dutch-Belgian government sign an agreement to rent a hotel for that purpose. And then there’s, as I mentioned, the slice of money that’s given to redecorate or convert the hotel afterwards back to being a normal hotel.

Katie Mingle:
There are some activists here in the Bay Area like San Francisco, Oakland. The governor here in California has already announced a plan to bring about 15,000 hotel rooms to being used to house homeless people here. We have a lot of homeless people in California, but there are activists that are calling on, like the mayor of San Francisco, for example, to kind of go a step further and instead of carefully negotiating these deals with hotels to actually commandeer them. And that’s not a step that she is going to take, it doesn’t seem, but have you heard of things like that happening where people use kind of like an executive privilege to take over hotels when they need to?

Kenneth Morrison:
Yes. And they can be commandeered in times of crisis. Buildings like hotels can often be strategic assets because they often occupy strategic heights. They can be quite tall buildings, particularly in an urban conflict, control of the strategic heights is extremely important. So, you know, sometimes hotels can be commandeered for that purpose. And what we’re facing now with the COVID-19 crisis is something really unique and in the context of the United States, for example, to think that any politician could tell business or a hotel owner, that they simply have to take the hotel and commandeered it for that purpose is hugely controversial. We’ve never been, I think, in a situation in Europe or the United States where that has been necessary. Certainly not in living memory. It was necessary during the Second World War where lots of hotels were commandeered either as field hospitals or bases for various agencies, government agencies who want to move out. London during the Blitz, for example, they had to take over these buildings and turn them into something else for a temporary period until the war was over. So it’s not without precedent but normally happens under the emergency powers that are enacted in the context of conflict.

Katie Mingle:
Maybe you could talk a little bit about what you’re seeing in terms of the COVID-19 crisis, like what kind of role you’re seeing hotels start to take.

Kenneth Morrison:
Absolutely. In New York, you had a couple of really nice hotels – the St. Regis, the Plaza, Eurotel. They become temporary field hospitals, but for non-critical patients. So it’s to basically take the pressure off the hospitals themselves. And then, of course, the Four Seasons in Manhattan, which, you know, in any ordinary time would be a rather expensive place to live, is now being opened up to health care workers. Hotels now are being used in a number of ways. They’re being used primarily as quarantine centers because, of course, so many people have had to leave the countries they may be working in or living temporarily and or on holiday. And of course, they then have to be put into quarantine for a 14 day period so we’ve seen hotels open them. Some are offering, in fact, quarantine packages where for 14 days you can go and live in a rather nice four or five-star hotel and have 14 days of quarantine there. Others are being forcibly quarantined by governments. So when they arrive back on home soil, you then have to spend 14 days in self-isolation.

Katie Mingle:
Is there something you get in these quarantine packages that is different, like all your food brought to your room…?

Kenneth Morrison:
Yes. I mean, the packages are providing the same service as a hotel normally would. Although, some people I’ve spoken to who have been in various hotels dotted around the world, have complained that the level of service is not quite what they would have expected. So obviously the food on offer is not what it would be under normal times. So you’re stuck in your room. It’s a beautiful room maybe with a nice view, but you can’t go anywhere. You have food brought to your door. But as I said, it won’t be of the same quality that one would have expected in such a hotel. But that’s a relatively nice way of being quarantined. In some cases, for example, I spoke recently to a student from Bosnia who had been working in Germany as a researcher and had to return home to the Bosnia-Herzegovina. And when they returned home, they were taken to this one hotel in a place called Tuzla in Bosnia. And they were to stay there for 14. They were basically forcibly held there for 14 days. And this has been happening all over Europe. Those that return, they simply have to submit and be kept in isolation.

Katie Mingle:
And what about homelessness specifically? How are you seeing hotels being used?

Kenneth Morrison:
Yes. In the case of the UK, the Crowne Plaza, I think the Holiday Inn and therefore the Holiday Inn Express, have come to an agreement with the UK government and the mayor London. They’ve basically handed over hundreds of rooms. I don’t know what the financial agreement was there, but those rooms will be available for the homeless of London. And I have to say that homelessness was becoming something of a crisis in London and it was very noticeable over the last couple of years in particular so there was a real effort required for the UK government to try and get homeless people off the streets. And of course, they were hugely vulnerable in the situations that they were in. But there was a big kind of effort to do that. And hotels were generally used as places to house the homeless?

Katie Mingle:
And do you know, in those cases, were they moving homeless folks into hotels that were already showing symptoms or was it just a proactive ‘let’s get everybody inside so that nobody is as vulnerable to this as they would be outside’?

Kenneth Morrison:
Well, some European countries have been testing far more than the UK. In the UK, the numbers have been quite low. So there was no time, and no facilities actually, to test people who perhaps were demonstrating any kind of symptoms, even if minor symptoms or kind of early symptoms. It was just that they had to be taken off the streets and given somewhere to live, given a roof over their heads for a short period so that they one, wouldn’t spread the disease and two, might not be exposed to those with it. And I’d be really interested to see what these hotels look like inside at the moment and what kind of services there are and to what extent those people are being looked after. And that I do not know, because it’s impossible, of course, to enter into any of these buildings. It’s impossible for me to travel, really. I can’t even go to my university, let alone to one of these hotels for the purposes of research.

Katie Mingle:
And what about just sort of like the scale overall around the world? Do you feel like the number of hotels that have transformed into kind of responding to this crisis in some way would be more than we’ve maybe seen since one of the world wars?

Kenneth Morrison:
I think we’ve never seen anything like this since the Second World War. You’ve had individual crises in individual countries or even regional conflicts, but you’ve never seen anything like this because what’s happened here is that the hotel industry has been seriously damaged by this. It will take a long, long time for hotels to recover, for tourism to recover from this. So if you even think optimistically that we might get back to some kind of normality in terms of tourism by 2021, so there will be a tourist season in 2021, you’re looking at at least a year’s income really lost by hotels. So of course, they have to adapt and they have to become something else and they have to offer their services because otherwise, they may simply go out of business. And I think that perhaps those hotel chains that have offered their services at this particular time might be more favorably looked upon than those that didn’t. If they need to be bailed out in the future, because, of course, the COVID-19 crisis may end in intensity, the kind of intensity that we’re experiencing at the moment.

Kenneth Morrison:
But it will take a long time for life to go back to normal, for people to feel that they want to travel again, for borders to open. For the time being, many hotels will simply not be able to return to business as usual and revert back to being places where, you know, you have weddings and parties and business meetings and holidays and so forth. That can’t happen. And in the countries that are really hit by bye COVID-19, those hotels have no other option really than to kind of redeploy and repurpose and become used as something else.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Katie Mingle and Abby Madan, with help from Emmett FitzGerald. Mix and tech production by Sharif Youssef, music by Sean Real, Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Delaney Hall. Joe Rosenberg, Vivian Le, Chris Berube, Avery Trufelman, Sofia Klatzker and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which is scattered about in various East Bay apartments but is centered in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

We are a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative podcasts in the world. Find them all at Radiotopia.fm. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99pi.org. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. We have links to all the organizations that Katie talked to and ways to get involved at 99pi.org.

  1. Jef

    ‘Homeless’ = Mental Illness
    Can we please stop calling it homelessness! It is a consequence of mental illness. I have been in zero money situations & I have never been homeless, despite my minor depression. Where are the seriously mentally ill in California? Jail?

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