Ashley Carnevale’s room at the Tillary Hotel in Brooklyn has two queen beds, a small closet, a TV, a private bathroom, and a dresser that she purchased herself — just the basics. But here, at least, she can come and go whenever she wants, unlike her time at the Taconic Correctional Facility in Westchester County, where she was incarcerated for 12 years. The transition from prison to Downtown Brooklyn was jarring at first. “I’m not from the city, so the whole experience was very hard,” she says. That included learning how to support herself — she had always lived with her parents or in-laws. But after a year and a half (she moved in last May), she says, “Now I’m just like a regular citizen, going to work every day.”
Her stay, part of the Emergency Rikers Relief Plan launched in March 2020, was designed to relieve an overcrowded Rikers and state prisons at the beginning of the pandemic. The program had placed her and more than 2,000 other former inmates in six hotels around the city as temporary housing for those who had no place to go. Having an address is critical; without one, those who are detained have a harder chance of getting parole, since it’s assumed that they will become homeless or go into the shelter system. Through the social-service support that comes with the hotel program, approximately 16 percent of the nearly 2,500 former inmates placed in hotel rooms have moved into permanent housing.
But the city is expected to terminate half of the hotel contracts by the end of this year, leaving approximately 300 people scrambling to find housing, whether in other hotels or elsewhere. It already closed the Wolcott Hotel in Midtown Manhattan in early October, where approximately 160 residents were staying, and the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Long Island City at the end of October. The Tillary, where Carnevale is staying, is scheduled to close by the end of December. Many of these residents have since been moved to the remaining hotels and were forced to double up in most cases.
The hotel program, run by the nonprofit Exodus Transitional Communities since its inception, is scaling down in part because the city says it wants to wind down its emergency program and instead focus on expanding its transitional housing. Exodus itself, caught up in multiple scandals, is being replaced as well. Three of its employees were caught trying to bring illegal substances and paraphernalia into Rikers and a fourth was removed for urinating in a hallway, and three active law-enforcement probes have been investigating the nonprofit’s hire of an unlicensed security firm to guard the hotels. The city has canceled Exodus’s contract and selected Housing Works to begin overseeing the remaining three hotels on December 31. However, if additional housing is not available in the next three weeks, an estimated 75 to 100 people could be left without a bed, say sources at Exodus. They will most likely be forced to choose between the shelter or the streets. As it is, many residents currently in the hotels are afraid of sharing a room with a stranger, and some are trying to find alternative housing. The mayor’s office did not answer whether more housing will be made available by the end of the year.
As the Tillary closes down, many residents feel like a lifeline has been abruptly taken from them. “I just have to keep fighting through this. It’s very disappointing,” says Ashley, who adds that she has not been offered any housing options yet. The closure comes at a particularly perilous time as rents across the city have remained high and winter temperatures drop. Without shelter, the risk of former inmates landing back in prison also goes up — when homeless, their chances of interacting with the justice system are 13 times higher than the general public’s. During the fall, photographer Annie Grossinger talked to ten people about their hotel stays and their transition to post-prison life.
Incarcerated 12 years at the Taconic Correctional Facility; living at the Tillary Hotel in Brooklyn since May 2021, which will close December 31.
“I’m so devastated. I’m actually freaking out. I’m trying to find a cheap studio. The max I can afford is $1,400, but I don’t have my voucher yet. It’s not right. This support, having a safe room to live in, is what has been helping me get on my feet. Now I’m being knocked down again.”
Incarcerated for four years on Rikers Island; living at the Howard Johnson Hotel in Long Island City since December 2021.
“Without Exodus, I would not be able to go back to school. I’m taking classes virtually. There’s no Wi-Fi services available in the Department of Homeless Services. I wouldn’t be able to accomplish everything I’ve accomplished now … The reception from the community is warm. A lot of people would probably be surprised if they see my face in this article. Like, ‘We know we seen this guy, but we didn’t know he had all that going on with him’.”
Incarcerated for 26½ years at Otisville Correctional Facility; lived at the Tillary Hotel from March 2021 to October 2022; now works with Exodus as a residential aide.
“The first 100 days are critical days. All your senses are hypersensitive. You need to learn how to walk. When people say, ‘What you mean — learn how to walk?’ I’d have to match the speed and the temperament with the public. Being used to being on the train, being confined, being bumped. Not become overaggressive because somebody bumped you. Because those are triggers for me from the inside.”
Incarcerated for 41 years; living at the Holiday Inn Express in Queens since July 2021.
“Most people have no idea what this program is. It’s ignorance. I was severely disadvantaged when I was released. I had no work history, no education except for a GED from prison. As you get older, fewer people will hire you. I just needed an opportunity. I have my own private room, which is fantastic because it didn’t put me in a precarious place … I do a lot of crying. I work out. I take care of myself. Self-care. It’s not all that complicated.”
Incarcerated dozens of times since 1989 (the latest stint was two months); living at the Tillary Hotel since February 2021, but the program there will close on December 31.
“It’s amazing. You feel you’re coming home to something. You’re not just going back to the streets. You’re not going to jail then back to, ‘I gotta do what I need to do to eat.’ I have a warm bed. I have somewhere that, whatever I’m doing throughout the day, I know I have a place to go. I’ve got food. I know if I’m hungry, I don’t have to go to CVS and steal. Boost, steal some milks.”
Incarcerated for seven years; lived at the Wolcott Hotel in Manhattan from December 2021 to October 2022; now at the Holiday Inn Express in Queens.
“I’m a family person, but my family isn’t here, so it’s this place that checks in on me.” With the closure of the Wolcott, he now has to live with roommates at the Holiday Inn Express in Queens. It’s like “being back in prison.”
Incarcerated for 28 years; was at the Wolcott from August 2020 until it closed in October.
“Living in the streets hurt. And I learned then that sleeping in a hallway, particularly in the wintertime, hurts not only my body but hurts my soul from the inside. Here, you have a room and a small refrigerator and a microwave oven. It’s like I’m the Cinderella man. What they do is they pave the road for you. But you have to do the footwork. I know that I’m living this kind of Cinderella life. And sooner or later this is gonna turn into a pumpkin. My time is gonna run out.”
Incarcerated twice for over three years in total; living at the Holiday Inn Express in Queens since November 2020.
“I can’t wait to get out of here so I can get my own place and get my son. He’s 14. I was locked up most of his life. Even though we have a mother-son bond, we will be more bonded living together. I can’t wait to spend more time with him. I didn’t feel a part of the community in the shelter. Being in here, I’m more independent.”
Incarcerated twice for a total of seven years at Fishkill Correctional Facility; lived at the Wolcott Hotel in Manhattan from January 2020 to September 2022.
“I was a Boy Scout. I got into folding military style and all of that. My uncle really was the one that got me into that cleaning and stuff like that … I could be going through something, and I don’t want to talk to nobody at that given moment, I either got to find somewhere to go where I’m able to calm down or I just go upstairs to my room, take everything out of the bathroom, and start cleaning the walls.”
Incarcerated for about 33 years at Fishkill Correctional Facility and Rikers Island; living in the Tillary Hotel since May 2021 and, prior to that, the Wolcott since April 2020. The Tillary will close 12/31.
“People wanna talk to me now. Since last year, they’ve seen a change in the way I dress, the way I express myself, the way I talk to people. They know it’s a change. ’Cause that’s not the old Serg. I mean, the old Serg was the one that was doing dirt. I’m going to get my own apartment soon, but for the time being, I’ve got to keep focusing and stay straight. ”
Photographs by Annie Grossinger