The wind chill effect on a January morning at 2:30 a.m. was just below freezing, cold enough to cause frostbite in 30 minutes. Two men huddled close, sitting on flattened cardboard boxes, leaning against a ConEd building on East 5th Street. They shared shabby blankets and spoke softly, each word creating slight fogs in front of their weather-beaten faces. They ignored a gaggle of young bar-hoppers down the block, but when two volunteers approached to ask about their housing situation, the men glanced up.
"Do you think I have a housing situation, here on the street?" one of the men replied, looking at the volunteers through smudged glasses. His companion chuckled. The volunteers, as instructed by employees of the Department of Homeless Services, suggested the men take refuge in a city shelter. "What’s that going to do?" the first man asked, shrugging beneath a thin sweater, no coat. "I been to those places and I’d rather be right out here." What about a private shelter? The second man shook his head, the brim of a bottle poking out from the paper bag crinkled next to him. "I’ve been out here for 20 years," he shouted, licking his chapped lips. "Ain’t no one helped me."
The girls backed away and moved down the block. Earlier that night, their trainer had told us, "It’s someone’s right to be on the street." Another volunteer clarified under his breath, "It’s our right to freeze to death."
By February of 2013, the number of men, women and children who do stay in public shelters, had swollen to roughly 51,000, the most the city has seen since the Great Depression. As for the homeless who stay on the street, their numbers have hovered uncomfortably high, despite some decreases in the last decade. The increase since 2011 in the HOPE survey -- short for Homeless Outreach Population Estimate -- made this apparent, as did the reckoning of administrators at the city’s private shelters, who at various times feel compelled to turn their kitchens and chapel floors into makeshift dorms. Advocates for the homeless blame the recession, the lack of affordable housing, and bad policy decisions for the recent upsurge in cases, a 27 percent increase in the use of municipal shelters in the last two years alone. A spate of weather-related crises has exacerbated the problem.
As officials and advocates struggle for solutions to rising homelessness, the most basic of concerns, the weather, often guides their efforts. Every night, homeless New Yorkers must choose between the hot and cold extremes of the sidewalk and the indignity of the shelters. New questions have arisen in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which left some 40,000 New Yorkers homeless when it struck Oct. 29, 2012. Of those, more than 2,000 were still lodged in hotels five months later.
As climate change alters the frequency, intensity, and timing of extreme weather events, it makes the future even more uncertain for the city’s most vulnerable residents. These include both perennial street- and shelter-dwellers along with those driven out of their homes by storms like Sandy or other weather-related emergencies. In the next few decades, climatologists like David Robinson say the city can expect less snowfall but more crippling blizzards, such as "Winterstorm Nemo" of February 2013, which dumped a foot of snow in Central Park and forced more street homeless into public transit and private shelters.
But harsh winters are not the only weather challenge for those who live on the street. Summer’s high heat not only increases the likelihood of storm surges, but it can be deadly in and of itself. Such was the case in 2011, when temperatures soared to an unbearable 103 degrees Fahrenheit and in 2012 when the mercury rose to 101. Just as climate change is likely to increase the frequency of such events, so, too, the homeless become more vulnerable. As Matt Krivich, the assistant director of the Bowery Mission, put it, "The elements can kill them."
Twelve years ago, Krivich was homeless, addicted to heroin, and living in Cleveland, Ohio, sometimes in his car where "you run out of gas, you run out of heat." Krivich told the "short version" of his personal story, sitting on a worn wooden pew in the Bowery Mission’s chapel. He works with the homeless at the facility, located for the past 134 years on the city’s Lower East Side, where many without permanent shelter come to escape the weather. "I remember when I was living in the car," he said. Krivich and his homeless girlfriend would steal fuel from gas stations, selling their spoils for cash to buy drugs. "But then you have to worry about freezing at night. You see no end."
To get to New York, Krivich eventually accepted help from a local pastor who offered to send him to a residential program for addicts. He spent a year in the Florida program, called Teen Challenge, and decided he too wanted to help people in situations like his own. Krivich bought a one-way-ticket to New York and interviewed for an internship program at the Mission, where he now serves as assistant director.
When Krivich arrived in the city a decade ago, an estimated 38,000 homeless lived in city-run shelters, with thousands more sleeping outside or in private facilities like the Bowery Mission. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first inauguration in 2002, the number of people using the city’s municipal shelters has increased 64 percent to 51,000, up from 31,000 in January 2002. Krivich didn’t know it at the time, but he had arrived at the beginning of a crisis. Since Bloomberg’s first term, the homeless population has increased so dramatically that in the period between 2011 and 2012, the latest for which federal estimates are available, the city’s spike in homelessness was the highest in the nation.
It’s not the first time. Eighty years ago during the Great Depression, white-collar workers, women, and families of all races became the new face of homelessness. "Hooverville" shanty towns, named after President Herbert Hoover, sprung up across the country; New York’s were in Central Park and Riverside Park at 72nd Street. But, after World War II and as the New Deal’s social programs restored prosperity, homelessness declined. That is, until a few decades later, when the numbers, both in New York and across the country, rose again.
Some experts attribute the 1980s rise to "deinstitutionalization", when an influx of newly homeless took up life on the street after their release from large state mental institutions. Others point to the devastating increase in crack cocaine usage at the time. Scholars who challenge these notions cite the changed housing market and growing income disparity as the more salient reasons for the upsurge. Indeed, jails and nursing homes have absorbed many of the mentally ill and crack cocaine usage has decreased, but homeless figures continue to grow.
Indeed the economy looms large in the history of homelessness. As poverty and income inequality have grown, the two factors have put more people at risk of homelessness. Census figures in a 2008 Economic Policy Review report show that from 1969 to 1979, median family income in New York City decreased 18 percent, putting 20.2 percent of the population below the poverty line. Despite income gains over the next 20 years, poverty levels increased nearly 2 percent, widening even further the gap between the rich and poor. More families and individuals not only became homeless, but relatives and friends who might have shared housing with them in better times could no longer afford to do so. This was the explanation of Kim Hopper, a medical anthropologist who co-directs the Center for the Study of Issues in Public Mental Health at Columbia University. Since 1979, he has done ethnographic and historical research on New York City’s homeless, even serving as president of the National Coalition for the Homeless from 1991 to 1993.
"It's always been a combination of a whole host of large-scale developments that put some people at risk," Hopper said. ". . . When that housing stock dried up and when families got less tolerant as the extended stays got longer and longer, people were getting more and more displaced."
Meanwhile in the 1970s, the larger scientific community began to focus on the continuing rise in global temperature. Climatologists at the time speculated that the trend would continue, helped along by accumulated greenhouse gases. Emitting and absorbing infrared radiation from the sun, the gases -- including water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone -- keep the Earth’s atmosphere just warm enough to sustain human life in what is known as the "greenhouse gas effect." But with turn-of-the-century industrialization and the burning of fossil fuels -- which results in the production of carbon dioxide -- human actions have intensified this phenomenon, trapping more radiation in the atmosphere. This, in turn, makes temperatures rise.
Ever since Theophrastus,one of Aristotle’s pupils, theorized marsh-draining increased regional freezing, scientists have speculated human interference could change a climate over time. And by the end of the 1970s, most scientists agreed that climate change was, in fact, inevitable. But energy politics has muddied the discussion, even as it becomes clearer that the burning of fossil fuels has a direct impact on human life.
At about the same time as Congress passed the National Climate Program Act, designed to form a national climate policy, New York City was forced to change its shelter policies. In October 1979, a co-founder of the Coalition for the Homeless filed a class action lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court, contending that it was the city and state’s responsibility to "provide adequate aid, care and support to the needy in New York City" to help them become more self-sufficient. The lawyer, Robert Hayes, essentially argued it was an individual’s constitutional right to have shelter in New York.
The suit, Callahan v. Carey, named then-Gov. Hugh Carey and New York City Mayor Ed Koch, among other public officials who oversee social services. The lead plaintiff was Robert Callahan, a 54-year-old chronic alcoholic Hayes found sleeping on the Bowery, where he had made his home for four years. Sometimes Callahan took a room at a tramp hotel, the Delevan, two blocks from the Bowery Mission’s current address.
The suit alleged that homeless men had only five options for shelter: lodging houses like the Delavan, shelters outside Manhattan on Ward’s Island or at Camp LaGuardia upstate, the "big room" at the city’s Men’s Shelter on East 3rd Street, or the sidewalk. About 1,000 men could be accommodated in the Men’s Shelter and through vouchers for lodging houses, but those in need often totaled twice that many. That meant up to 1,000 men each night could be sleeping on New York’s streets if they weren’t willing to trek out to the other locations. For some who feared violence in the shelters or worried they would arrive too late for admission at the far-out locations, the street was usually their first choice.
Weather figured prominently in the suit. The Rev. Edward M. O’Brien, the director of Holy Name, a help center for the homeless on Bleecker Street in the East Village, reminded the court how during previous winters the Bowery homeless had "suffered frostbite -- including loss of limbs from frostbite -- and in several instances death from exposure." He warned that the coming winter would be even worse with the anticipated closing of several shelters at the time. Michael Dorhan, who also worked at the center, added: "As part of my duties I identify at the New York City Morgue the bodies of certain persons who have died on the Bowery. On a number of occasions the cause of death for several of the persons whose bodies I identified was given as ‘hypothermia’." He predicted more such deaths in the coming year.
In immediate response, the New York State Supreme Court ordered the city and state to provide shelter for homeless men, saying they were "entitled to board and lodging." Two years later, in August 1981, Callahan was settled as a consent decree, which ordered the city to "provide shelter and board to each homeless man who applies for it" so long as he meets state standards or needs temporary shelter because of physical, mental, or social dysfunction. The decision did not come soon enough for the suit’s lead plaintiff. A year before the consent decree was issued, Callahan was found face-down outside in the Lower East Side on Spring Street. The cause of death was never determined.
The decree outlined standards for shelter to make them more desirable to homeless men and, in two 1983 lawsuits, it was extended to women and families. The "right to shelter" decree has been amended and challenged a few times over the years, most recently in December 2011, when the Bloomberg administration began obliging single homeless adults to prove they had nowhere else to go. The Legal Aid Society, City Council, and Coalition for the Homeless sued the city, and a court overturned the restrictions the following March. In February 2013, the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court supported the initial ruling.
None of Bloomberg’s predecessors as mayor put much focus on permanent solutions for already homeless families and adults, though they added thousands of new affordable housing units in the city. When Koch left office in 1989, the number of homeless in city shelters was about 20,000. After David Dinkins, in 1993, some 23,000 homeless people used shelters, a number that rose a full 31 percent to 30,000 by December 2001, just before Bloomberg took over from Rudolph Giuliani. Among Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani’s most publicized policies were the ordering of police to arrest homeless people and force them into shelter on cold nights.
Bloomberg made headlines this year after several homelessness gaffes. In one instance, he told reporters "nobody's sleeping on the streets," though the sidewalks of nearly every neighborhood show otherwise. Although many of those sleeping on the street, sometimes in the rain, disagree, Bloomberg also told reporters last summer that he has improved conditions in city-run facilities for the homeless. "When we came into office, the shelter system was an abomination," he said. "People were driven around all night. The kids slept on benches. None of that happens again, so there’s less pressure on people to move out today."
The emphasis of Bloomberg’s administration on trying to find permanent solutions to homelessness has had mixed results. In 2004, the administration came up with a five-year plan to reduce the shelter population by two-thirds, focusing on programs and interventions that "solve homelessness" as opposed to "simply sheltering individuals and families." Later in 2004, the city announced it would no longer allow homeless families who were living in emergency shelters to apply for federal rent vouchers or receive priority referrals for public housing. Instead, candidates who had jobs were offered progressively shrinking rent grants up to $1,400 over a five-year period in a program called "Housing Stability Plus." Another program soon replaced it. "Work Advantage," which was funded by the city, state, and federal government, gave grants of up to $1,100 for up to two years. State spending cuts forced the city to close it down in March of 2011.
Homeless advocates think that the severe economic downturn has gotten in the way of some of the city’s efforts to help this vulnerable population. The recession has increased unemployment and caused Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Albany lawmakers to reduce the state’s share of funding for Advantage as part of efforts to close a $10 billion budget deficit. Though the Coalition for the Homeless did not favor rent subsidies such as those Housing Stability Plus and Advantage offered, calling them "wasteful and ineffective," to cut the program without offering any kind of alternative was a devastating move to the city’s poorest families. In fact, since Advantage ended, the municipal shelter population has increased nearly two-thirds.
Even with the obvious adverse impact of Advantage’s end, advocates still see the end of federal rent vouchers and priority public housing referrals back in 2004 as the primary cause of the rise in homelessness. Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst and spokesman at the Coalition, makes this clear in repeated posts on the organization’s blog, which regularly blasts Bloomberg’s policies.
The Coalition attacked one such Department of Homeless Services policy this past winter after it became clear that public shelters were turning away some previously registered homeless families during extreme weather emergencies for bureaucratic reasons. While single adults are guaranteed shelter during dangerous weather, "it does not appear that similar protections are in place for families with children who re-apply for shelter," wrote City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Annabel Palma, chair of the council’s general welfare committee, in a letter to the department’s commissioner. "It is unacceptable to deny families shelter when dangerous weather conditions exist, particularly for young children. In extreme weather, the City must err on the side of caution in all cases."
Markee stressed that those homeless families with children who the policy has affected have contributed to the largest rise in use of municipal shelters in the last two years. They make up 78 percent of homeless people today. Job loss and economic setbacks are the largest contributors to the problem, homeless advocates say. Krivich at the Bowery Mission said he has observed a slight shift in the shelter’s clientele in the last few years, especially the increase of those seeking food from the organization's meal and pantry service. "These are the folks that aren’t necessarily homeless yet or these are the people that might be living in a two-bedroom apartment with three families," he said. "They’re not working, not able to provide meals for their family."
Single adults are facing similar problems. Although they make up only 22 percent of those staying in municipal shelters, their numbers also have increased -- 10 percent in the last two years. Krivich said he sees more "new" adult homeless at the Mission’s soup kitchen every year.
Krivich is less quick than the Coalition’s leadership to blame the Bloomberg administration. And while he does say the city’s shelter system is necessary, and acknowledges it has expanded in response to the rise, it is not enough. "They’re warehouses for people," he said. "It’s an easy solution to the to the rising numbers of homeless: open up new shelters and store them away so that nobody sees them and give the appearance that the problem has been alleviated, where we aim to really end it."
The Bowery Mission operates several recovery and residential programs meant to target the causes of homelessness and get participants in steady jobs. Krivich said interest in the residential program has increased, to the maximum 80 participants from around 30 when he arrived there in 2003. But the Mission is perhaps best known for its work with the neighborhood’s street homeless population, many of whom flock to its red doors during storms and extremely hot or cold nights. On any given night when temperatures dip below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the Mission will have as many as 50 people sleeping on its floors to avoid the less desirable alternative. This past winter, the Mission provided 12,557 nights of shelter to homeless men. That was a 34 percent increase over the previous year and a record 170 people in house per night.
"I think it’s very complex," Krivich said. "What it boils down to, avoiding all the politics and stuff, is our selfishness. There shouldn’t be people sleeping in the streets."
At 7:40 p.m. on a Wednesday last December, a group of men began rearranging the chapel at the Bowery Mission, shoving pews to the stage where evening service was conducted an hour before. Outside, 80 or so homeless men lined up in the cold, waiting to be let in for the night. Mission staff swept the floor, depositing papers, crumbs, and all manner of debris in a trash can in the southwest corner of the room. Meanwhile, more men dragged dozens of sleeping mats from the basement, hurling them across the floor where they were unfolded and arranged in a tight mosaic covering most of the chapel’s brick-red tiles. Finally, after being searched for drugs, alcohol, and weapons, men filed into the Mission, picking a mat or pew as a place to sleep.
The same routine is repeated every cold night or during the summer when between 10 and 20 men will escape the heat on the chapel floor. A mile away at the New York City Rescue Mission, founded in 1872, the homeless can expect similar treatment. The Rev. Craig Mayes has only served as executive director for one year, but he’s already had to lead the Mission through several weather emergencies, including Superstorm Sandy and two snowstorms. In February’s "Nemo," the staff managed to squeeze more than 120 men into its dorms, chapel, dining room, lobby and office hallways -- even Mayes’ own office. "When we have really extreme weather like the hurricane, for example, and the blizzard Nemo, we go into Plan B," he said, "which is when we ignore all the city codes and where we’re able to sleep people anywhere."
Every night, regardless of the temperature, 40 men can get food, a hot shower, and a bed or mat for the night as part of the transient program, though the number is closer to 80 normally. The Rescue Mission began building new dorms to double capacity for its transient and recovery programs -- as well as add 32 emergency shelter beds for women -- so space will be tight until construction completes in April 2014. When demand is high, the Mission offers space by lottery and it tends to fill fast. "We tell them where there’s other shelters and stuff nearby, but most of them know the ropes," Mayes explained. "They know if they can’t get it they’re going to go to whatever their plan B is."
If the weather is bad, most of the homeless who don’t use city shelters or the private shelters, such as the Bowery and Rescue missions, will take refuge in the subways or transit centers, like Penn Station and Grand Central. Some will stay outside on the streets no matter what the weather and often police will bring them to shelters like the Rescue Mission. "My understanding is, yes, when it gets to those conditions it becomes a suicidal thing," Mayes said. "It’s treated like someone is trying to bring harm to themselves."
When temperatures drop below 32 degrees, the city issues a Level 1 or 2 "code blue." During these or winter weather emergencies like blizzards and freezing rain, outreach teams scour the streets and parks for those who are at risk for "cold related exposure and possible death." In the three months before winter, the Department of Homeless Services deploys outreach teams to conduct "critical death prevention work," to get people off the streets and into shelters before its too late. The teams create a "Priority List" every October, noting the location of homeless persons and their regular haunts to check on when the code blue might be needed.
As they approach homeless individuals, or "clients," the teams assess the people they encounter using three criteria: Are they able to take care of themselves? Are they wearing appropriate clothing? Does the excessive use of drugs or alcohol explain why they’re still outside? The teams also ask questions aimed at determining if the individual is experiencing frostbite. ("Have you experienced a pins-and-needles sensation in your fingers, nose, toes or ears?") If a client at-risk of injury refuses to go inside or exhibits any signs of hypothermia or damage from exposure, the outreach teams will call EMS and the police for involuntary transport to shelters, emergency rooms, or warming centers.
"The approach is different depending on the situation -- whether the person knows the team, whether they are sleeping, what the weather is, etc," Kristen Edwards explained in an email. She is the associate director of programs at the Goddard Riverside Community Center, the lead agency in the Manhattan Outreach Consortium, which collaborates with the Department of Homeless Services for street outreach in the borough. "We always approach with respect for someone’s personal space, and a sense of dignity and respect for what the person is experiencing."
She said Goddard outreach teams are paid and they often have some experience in social services, including psychiatry. A team is on-call for Manhattan most of the time, but only during daylight hours does Goddard divide the city into four catchment areas. Outreach teams make rounds through each of their sections in vans. During code blue, the number of teams doubles and there are outreach checks on "Priority List" clients every one to two hours. "Code reds" go into effect when it’s above 90 degrees outside. During these events, the number of teams also doubles and they check clients for signs of heat cramps, exhaustion, or stroke.
The Department of Homeless Services calls the city-wide operation "aggressive." DHS dispatches teams 24-hours a day, seven days a week, to encourage street homeless to take advantage of shelters and other housing options. To an extent, these efforts have been successful. Even though the number of homeless in city shelters continues to increase, the number of chronically homeless who have been placed in housing increased 28 percent from 2011 to 2012. Since 2004, when Bloomberg’s five-year plan spurred a reorganization of outreach programs, the number of street homeless was cut nearly in half, to around 2,300 individuals in 2009. Since then the numbers have fluctuated, but the most recent statistics as of May show a 20 percent increase in homeless people on the street from 2011 to 2013. The HOPE survey did show a slight 2.5 percent decrease since the 2012 count, to 3,180 people living on streets or subways on that cold January night. But most advocates are skeptical about the accuracy of these numbers, stressing they are little more than an estimate. Three days before this year’s count, Markee of Coalition for the Homeless scoffed at the entire survey, saying, "The numbers that they’re going to come up with certainly will undercount how many people are out there on the streets."
The Department of Homeless Services gets its street homeless numbers from thousands of volunteers like the girls on 5th Street during the HOPE survey, which is conducted every year to meet requirements for some federal funding. The survey is done in January in order to asses the effectiveness of the department’s various outreach efforts, some through subcontractors, to those who refuse to seek shelter on some of the coldest nights of the year.
Extreme weather also figures in the equation. Eric, young with blonde hair and a short mustache, was sitting near the corner of 2nd Avenue and St. Mark’s Place in an East Village alcove where shopkeepers peddle cheap sunglasses and glass pipes. It was 4 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 29, and a massive, six to 10-foot storm surge from Superstorm Sandy was just four hours away from slamming New York Harbor, blacking out Lower Manhattan and crippling the subway system for weeks. Huge gusts of wind blew soaked pieces of paper down the deserted block of St. Mark’s and rain sprayed the sidewalk, creating growing puddles every few feet. But Eric, who was wrapped in a damp blanket and reading the new Mick Jagger biography, wasn’t worried.
"This ain’t my first rodeo," he said, laughing. He declined to give his last name. "Been out here and it’s not so bad so far." Next to Eric, another person lay, apparently sleeping, near the entrance to 2 Bros. Pizza covered with a filthy blanket. Eric peered out from their little shelter and shook his head. "This ain’t nothing. I gotta survive."
For Eric, survival outside in the storm seemed to be a better idea than in a shelter. He’d been to city facilities before. "I ain’t going back there. I’d rather be out in this -- I got freedom out here," he said. "That place is like a jail. I’d rather be in the rain than locked up. I don’t want to go to jail." Eric said a crack house on 12th Street, where he sometimes crashes, is even preferable to shelters. "First time I was in a shelter," he recalled, "I was taking a shower and outside this guy comes up and takes a shit on a urinal. I was like, ‘ugh oooo-kay,’ And then two black crackheads, they start fighting in the bathroom."
Belinda Bernard knows such scenarios are common. She directs Safe Haven, an emergency shelter for homeless who have mental health issues. "Things have been stolen, they’ve been beaten up," she said. "For some reason or other, they feel like they’ve been abused, they’ve not been heard. And so going back into the shelters is the last resort for many of the people that I’ve worked with." She described one client who complained that every time he put his bag down, someone got into it to steal his medications. "He was ready to run," she said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeless Services said the facilities it operates are "secure," but offered no comment on specific allegations of theft in city shelters.
Safe Haven is by the non-profit Project Renewal and is part of the Department of Homeless Services shelter system. It is one of the smaller transitional shelters and often considered a housing alternative for those who are chronically without homes. Safe Haven’s clients come from outreach teams, other city shelters, emergency rooms, and some of the private shelters.
Lee Stringer is a one-time homeless crack addict who now serves on the board of Project Renewal. He is also the author of a memoir, Grand Central Winter. The book recounts Stringer’s own experience sleeping in Grand Central and Central Park in the summer of 1985. He talked about the feeling of freedom that homelessness can give, the release from the demands of domicile and jobs. "You go in the shelter and it’s now you can’t do that, you can’t do this," he said in an interview. And if you have an alcohol or drug addiction? "It’s hard to pursue that lifestyle and be chained to the rules of a shelter."
During his first year on the street 30 years ago, after the soles on his fancy pre-homeless shoes wore out, Stringer walked downtown to the Bowery Mission where he was given a hot meal. At such soup kitchens, churches, and synagogues, "you thought you were a hotel guest," he said. "They treated you with such respect and kindness and friendliness."
It’s with this idea in mind that the most of the city’s faith-based organizations, like the Bowery and Rescue missions, operate. Eight of them formed the NYC Rescue Alliance in 2007 to engage New Yorkers around the cause of homelessness. The Alliance began its own annual outreach campaign, "Don’t Walk By," which stresses the moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In it, a traveller is robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the street. Two people, including a priest, pass the man by, before a Samaritan stops to help him.
Organizers of Don’t Walk By repeated the story to a packed chapel on the first Saturday in February during volunteer training at the Oversea Chinese Mission. "They’re going to be cold and you’re going to be cold," Brian Johansson, the Bowery Mission’s vice president, told the volunteers. "That’s why we do it this month, because tonight they’re going to need help." During the three-hour outreach to homeless people living on the streets of downtown Manhattan, groups of volunteers gave out care kits packed with soap, gloves, a snack, and other items. They also offered transportation to the Mission on Hester Street for a hot meal of peppercorn steak and rice, as well as medical care and help with arrangements to get a bed for the night. For those who accepted shelter, social workers went out the next morning to help figure out next steps.
Members of our eight-person outreach group shivered in a 19-degree windchill as we set off walking to our assigned zone, the northwestern part of the East Village. As we walked up the Bowery, our team’s leader, Laytoya Toney, reminded us to make clear to the homeless people we encountered that we were not with the Department of Homeless Services. "A lot of them will have bad associations with DHS," she said. It was her second time participating in the campaign and her fiance, whom she met volunteering at the Bowery Mission, is formerly homeless.
After some time, the group came to the intersection of Union Square and 4th Avenue, where John, shabby and gray-haired, was standing underneath scaffolding as we approached. Toney was right. He only agreed agreed to be brought to the Oversea Chinese Mission for dinner after we explained several times that we did not work for the city, not for the Department of Homeless Services.
Many homeless prefer the treatment they receive from private organizations to the city’s efforts. "The government does it out of obligation and by mandate, private sector does it out of something deeper than that," explained Mayes of the New York City Rescue Mission. He gestured around his office. "There’s a value surrounding this, and it’s the dignity of every person."
At 47, and after 30 years of intermittently living outside, Raul Rodriguez knows how to keep warm in freezing temperatures. Some days he would wrap himself in plastic bags; other days he would build a snow fort to block the wind. "The way I was able to survive as a homeless person was to think primarily in the primitive point how we used to live centuries ago," he said.
Rodriguez started sleeping outside because he was, and still is, fed up with shelters -- and the fragment of plastic that lies underneath a scar on the nape of his neck is just one reason why. In 1995, Rodriguez was staying at the Bedford-Atlantic Armory, a hulking men’s shelter in Brooklyn. He went to the "filthy and deplorable" bathroom to take a shower. "While I was in there, I got into an argument with another guy that was there who left his underwear in his frigging shower," Rodriguez said. "While we’re getting into an argument, the guard came, and when the guard came, he turned around and told me to get out of the shower. I was like, ‘But I’m not finished yet.’ So he actually grabbed me and pulled me out of the shower." As the guard and Rodriguez started fighting, the "kid" he was originally arguing stabbed him in the neck with a toothbrush filed into a shank.
Police arrested Rodriguez after the altercation and he was sent to serve a 90-day sentence at Willard, an upstate drug-treatment center within the Department of Corrections. The experience and other abuse put him off shelters for good. These days, Rodriguez only uses the city’s drop-in facilities, where he can sleep in a chair and wash-up. Although he has no bed of his own, he looked put together in a suit and long winter coat for an interview in February at the headquarters of Picture the Homeless in the Bronx, where he is an outspoken advocate for homeless rights. He said the city has made it difficult, if not impossible, for homeless who have moved into shelters to get permanent housing. "You got people there who have been there three, four years waiting for a section 8 apartment or waiting for some other term of housing," he said.
To get into a city shelter, a homeless individual, adult family, or family with children must first go to an intake center. The centers are in different locations in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, which makes travel difficult for those without a car or the $2.50 subway and bus fare. Once going through intake, it can take days before being assigned a bed. A homeless friend of Rodriguez told him that she and her son had to sleep on chairs for three days at the intake center last year before they got assigned a shelter in Midtown Manhattan. Because family intake is in the Bronx, the woman was unable to find her shelter within the required four hours she had to get there. The mother ended up in the hospital, suffering from a panic attack, and Rodriguez had to take care of the woman’s son. When Rodriguez first entered the system decades ago, he also waited in a chair for more than 12 hours. He was eventually assigned a bed, but it was "stolen," and administrators had to find him a new spot -- more waiting.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeless Services said there’s no wait in family intake facilities anymore. "A streamlined system processes families in an average of eight hours, or one business day," press secretary Heather Janik said in an email." Families wait in comfortable atmospheres -- bright waiting rooms with colorful artwork and snacks and television available."
In addition to the drop-in centers Rodriguez now frequents, the department operates 231 shelters as of February, 17 more facilities since Advantage ended in March 2011. Rodriguez and other single adults might sleep on an intake center bed for months before being transferred to a "permanent shelter" -- a term one homeless woman noted "makes no sense whatsoever," as they’re all supposed to be temporary.
The city partially attributes the rise in sheltered homeless to the high number of non-New Yorkers looking for a place to stay. (In recent articles, the Department of Homeless Services has said out-of-towners now account for 10 percent of families and a quarter of all the adults entering the shelter system for the first time.) The city also says increased stay length has put a strain on the system. "We have made our shelter system so much better that, unfortunately, when people are in it -- or fortunately, depending on what your objective is -- it is a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before," Mayor Bloomberg told reporters in February. "We are proud that our shelters provide a safe, clean environment with on-site security, support services, and caseworkers for children on site." At the time, he also hinted the system was cheaper than providing rent subsidies or federal vouchers for affordable housing. "The question you have to ask yourself is, do you want to reach into your pocket and have your taxes go up and start paying for more permanent housing for everybody?"
Each single adult costs the city roughly $2,300 a month and each homeless family costs over $3,000 a month. Because of overall increases, the city’s Independent Budget Office estimates the total shelter costs will be $819 million this year, $500.1 million for families and $319.2 million for single adults. The year Advantage went into effect, the city spent 31 percent less on shelter.
Homeless people in city shelters agreed the costs are too high. But with the privatization of the system -- nonprofits and other subcontractors operate most of DHS shelters -- one homeless woman thinks it’s "a money-maker" that consistently degrades the homeless.
"The degradation that goes on in these places day to day is just completely inexcusable," said the woman, Heather H., who asked only her first name be used to protect her family’s privacy. Heather came to the city from Chicago with her two kids, who are now both six, in December 2011 for Occupy Wall Street, a move she admits wasn’t well-planned. When their original accommodations fell through, and after staying at various churches in the city, Heather and her kids ended up at West Park Presbyterian on 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Eventually protest security called Children’s Services and her kids were taken away. (They are currently in foster care and Heather still has a DCS case open as of April.) After months of couchsurfing and sleeping on the street, Heather ended up at Franklin Women’s Shelter, a women’s intake facility. She stayed at the shelter, run by the Salvation Army, four months before the city transferred her to Magnolia House in Brooklyn.
This past March, Heather overheard a verbal argument between a homeless woman and two male security staff members at Magnolia House. The woman was screaming, "Where’s the woman? Where’s the woman?" after the two men entered her dorm room without a female staff member, though shelter rules dictate otherwise. The men screamed back at the woman, one adding, "I’ll make you feel like less than a woman," Heather said she heard. Heather accompanied the woman to complain to the shift supervisor, but he "laughed in her face."
Heather’s sensibility for the exploitation she sees in the shelters was fostered during the Occupy Wall Street protest, where she and Virginia Simson, another member of Picture the Homeless, met and "shared cardboard." Heather and Simson said they’ve witnessed and experienced countless acts of intimidation, abuse, and violence since they entered the system last fall. Both Heather and Simson suffer from chronic illnesses and PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, for various reasons. Because of their health, both currently reside in MICA shelters for those who are "mentally ill and chemically addicted." But Heather and Simson said tensions are high in the crowded dorms with addicts coming off drugs and people with unstable mental conditions.
"You’re kept up well into the night because you’re surrounded by people who are using drugs heavily, they’re coming off of a binge, dealing with mental issues," said Heather, 32. People are arrested and brought to the hospital on a regular basis, she said. Both Heather and Simson said prostitution happens in the dorms, too, in addition to drug-dealing and drug use. "In between that, you’re just treated like crap by staff," Heather said.
A spokeswoman from the Department of Homeless Services did not comment on specific allegations of abuse or illegal activities in the shelters, but said residents receive "safe" housing.
Simson, 63, said she knew of one young woman at her shelter, Susan’s Place in the Bronx, who started using drugs, including crack, after the stress of being in the system for 19 straight months. "They don’t even notice what’s going on. You can see people obviously headed for disaster," said Simson. "They wait ‘till it’s too late."
Simson became homeless in July 2011 not because of a weather emergency but after a bank foreclosed on her apartment in Minnesota. She worked with Occupy Minnesota before coming to New York in September 2012. Simson entered the shelter system the next month and was eventually transferred to Susan’s Place. "I had no idea what I was walking into," she said four months later. Along the way, Simson and Heather met and slept as occupiers in Zuccotti Park. "We have a little dream," Simson said with a crooked smile. "Our dream is to get a nice apartment. I help her take care of her kids and we run a charity called ‘There’s No Place Like Home,’ where women with children, and women with serious illnesses actually get some help and support." She stops and shakes her head, adding, "There’s no one really representing the truly homeless women." Of the shelter population in general, Simson said, "People need to realize: there’s no place to go."
Rodriguez, Heather, and Simson have all at some point slept outside in the city, either on sidewalks or under bridges, facing the elements. Like Rodriguez and the men on 5th Street that the volunteers counted during the HOPE survey, many street homeless have given up entirely on municipal shelters because of the poor conditions. Those who feel they need dependable surroundings to find work, like Heather and Simson, are forced to live within a shelter system where they feel abused. Advocates said families with children, which represented the biggest increase in recent years, fall into the second category, as parents are less likely to allow their children to sleep outside.
In the last year, the city opened several new shelters in response to rising need, but advocates and homeless pointed to another another cause for concern: Superstorm Sandy. "It was already a problem. The Advantage program was the last straw," Simson explained. "And then they added the next straw, with Hurricane Sandy, creating more urban blight and distress in all these hotels all over Harlem and everything."
Bloomberg estimated 40,000 people, half in public housing, were initially stranded after the storm. "We don’t have a lot of empty housing in this city, so it’s really a problem to find housing," he said a week after Sandy struck. "We’re not going to let anybody go sleeping in the streets." Evacuees were put up in temporary facilities, including Franklin Women’s Shelter. Some of the evacuees unable to pay for their own replacement housing or go home were sent to dozens of hotels around the city. As of March, more than 2,000 people were still staying in those hotels on the city and federal government’s dime.
The Coalition for the Homeless has noted that not only is homelessness rising, but the current numbers the city reports don’t even include the thousands still stranded after Superstorm Sandy. "If anybody was to look at how the mayor’s done on providing housing for the record number of homeless kids and families, no one would feel very comfortable the city alone is going to solve this problem very well when it comes to victims of the hurricane," Markee said.
Jean Ferrara-Rodriquez and her daughter were homeless and staying at a Comfort Inn & Suites for three months after the storm made their Hamilton Beach home unlivable. The two were initially evacuated to the Surfside Motel in nearby Howard Beach, but the night the storm hit, water flooded the entire first floor of the building. "It’s time to say goodbye to Hamilton," Ferrara-Rodriquez said in a bleak voice as water breached the lobby of the motel on Oct. 29. "It’s time to bury it." A few hours later, water reached the second-floor balcony of the motel. By 3:30 a.m., the National Guard, fire, and police departments rescued them and other motel guests. For the next two weeks, 51-year old Ferrara-Rodriquez and Jean Marie, who was 13, drifted in between high school evacuation centers and a relative’s place before settling down at the Comfort Inn on Nov. 11.
"They said, ‘Hamilton Beach is inaccessible and you’re going to be wired money,’" Ferrara-Rodriquez said, recalling the first automated messages from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. The agency said they would give her $2,948 every two months for two months only, but the government later extended federal assistance to four months. "They didn’t realize how bad the problem was," Ferrara-Rodriquez said almost five months after checking in. "There was supposed to be temporary housing but there was none, so I guess it became lodging." She said the room cost her roughly $4,500 for one month, even with a AAA discount, so she was about $3,000 short a month after FEMA. "It sure as heck wasn’t enough money. I’m still dealing with them to get the rest of the money."
Denise Everhart, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said, "We can never move fast enough," but added in the first week after Sandy, the agency approved more than $156 million for families to recover from the storm.
Given the unreliability of the FEMA checks, Ferrara-Rodriquez and her daughter left the motel and returned to their ravaged home on Feb. 16. There was no heat on the first floor and and there were still plumbing problems, but, as Ferrara-Rodriquez likes to say, "At least I got a roof over my head." The first floor of Ferrara-Rodriquez’ home was still completely gutted and she and Jean Marie were still living without a refrigerator or stove in April. As she stood within the cluttered wood panels of what used to be her dining room, Ferrara-Rodriquez said she didn’t think things would be "back to normal" for several years.
Ferrara-Rodriquez and her daughter are among the residents of 271,000 households who received housing assistance from the agency since the storm. Some, like Ferrara-Rodriquez, used the federal money for hotel rooms when they couldn’t find affordable, temporary housing. Another 6,000 households received transitional shelter assistance from FEMA to pay for temporary apartments or hotel rooms after Sandy. Of that number, 333 were still using the program at the beginning of April. Another 970 households were in 50 different locations as of March in a similar hotel-shelter program run by the city. The transitional program had cost FEMA and the state nearly $60 million as of April, but the total bill will likely be larger. In February, the commissioner of homeless services said at a City Council hearing that they are hoping FEMA will also pay for the city program. "They're already paying for one," said Seth Diamond during the hearing. "We intend to submit a claim to FEMA for the city hotel system." Everhart, from FEMA, said the agency could potentially pay for 75 percent of the city hotel-shelter program, but as of April 2013 the claim hasn’t been approved.
FEMA ended its hotel-shelter program in April, as did the city. Some members of households in the city program could stay in the hotels, but 196 families were still ineligible for the extension. At the end of April, five of those evacuees filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court, asking for a restraining order to halt the end of the program. A judge granted the order on April 29 and in May will decide if the case will continue. In addition to asking for the restraining order, the lawsuit alleges the city did not do enough to help Sandy victims find affordable housing -- a claim the city disputes.
After announcing the end to the city’s hotel-shelter program, homeless services comissioner Diamond told The New York Times that hundreds of families would be able to move to recently available public housing apartments. The city said another 150 families would receive federal rent vouchers subsidizing 70 percent of their rent as part of a "Housing Choice Voucher" pilot program. The program is just one of several future housing options noted in the city’s March action plan, which details how the city intends to spend an initial $1.77 billion disaster federal recovery grant. Other long-term rental assistance to those homeless from Sandy depends on future recovery funds. Of the remaining people homeless after Sandy, some, like Ferrara-Rodriquez, may return to their homes and continue rebuilding. Those people may be assisted by $600 million in grant money as outlined in the action plan. Another $120 million will help to rebuild and restore public housing. Other people who cannot find permanent and affordable housing may be forced to enter the city homeless shelter system.
During and after the storm, many displaced New Yorkers were deployed to DHS shelters and assisted by the department. Homebase, one of the successful homelessness prevention programs that originated from 2004 five-year plan, helped refer Sandy victims to hotels in the months after the storm. Homebase also directed clients to FEMA, the Human Resources Administration, public housing, and the NYC Housing Recovery Portal. The portal assists Sandy victims to find housing in 2,500 vacant apartments, though only 673 clients successfully used the service between December and March to find housing they could afford.
The city’s efforts to help those permanently stranded after Sandy are only made more difficult by the storm surge’s trajectory, which hit some of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods and damaged 402 public housing buildings. Of 150,000 households that requested assistance from FEMA, 30 percent of homeowners and 65 percent of renters had incomes of less than $30,000 per year. "For both low income renters and the elderly, New York City may need to devise longer-term strategies for evacuating and re-housing these populations in future storms," wrote one study by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University.
The city seems to agree that climate change is making longer-term strategies necessary. In 2008, Bloomberg convened a group of leading climatologists to form the New York City Panel on Climate Change. The panel predicted the city’s surrounding sea level would rise 2 to 5 inches by the 2020s and that precipitation and extreme weather events would increase due to climate change. In the March action plan, the city said they are currently working with the panel to update the projections. "It is clear, however, that New York City’s vulnerability to sea level rise, coastal storms and other climate change-related impacts (e.g., heat waves, high winds, and increased precipitation) will grow over time, with an associated increase in the vulnerability of New York’s people, buildings, and infrastructure," the plan said. In this vein, as part of the initial grant funds, $327 million will be used to strengthen the city’s infrastructure and insure it becomes more resilient to the future impacts of climate change. Many individual homeowners’ rebuilding efforts will, in fact, be dictated by new guidelines.
Restoration of DHS buildings will be influenced by the new resiliency guidelines, too. However, no documents indicate the department’s overall strategies will be significantly impacted by the looming threat of climate change. In fact, the only indication that the department even considers changes in policy because of extreme weather is in one sentence in the action plan: "DHS is continuing to assess the damage from the storm and look toward the future at what can be done to be better prepared for a future event."
In addition to the city’s own panel of experts, many climatologists said that more storms like Sandy are possible in the foreseeable future. Formed in 1988 by two United Nations organizations and made up of leading climate experts, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in a report released last year that current evidence suggests climate change can be linked to an increase in heat waves, precipitation, and frequency of coastal flooding. "A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events," the report said. Another study, released in March, indicated that climate change will also amplify risk from storm surges resulting from hurricanes formed in the Atlantic Ocean, such as the devastating Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, which the National Weather Service downgraded before it made landfall.
Despite the apparent oxymoron, even blizzards -- the street homeless’ worst nightmare -- will likely increase in the future because of global warming. David Robinson is New Jersey’s state climatologist and director of the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University. Along with several other leading climatologists, he co-authored a study that found America has been hit with twice as many snowstorms in the last 50 years than in the previous 60 years and this trend should continue. Climate change makes it warm enough to increase atmospheric moisture, so when temperatures reach the freezing threshold, huge amounts of snow are dumped all at once. "Quite often, especially in points around New York City, we flirt with the freezing mark when it comes to these winter storms," Robinson said.
Robinson and other climatologists stressed that pinning any storm on climate change, whether a blizzard or Superstorm Sandy, is impossible. But larger patterns in climatic changes signal the city and the rest of the world will see more extreme weather overall. "It’s a complex system that we never pretend to understand fully," Robinson said. "But we see evidence already at hand and the models suggest future changes that are going to make the weather and climate of this region of the mid-Atlantic more prone to extremes than we’ve seen in the past."
While weather in general is often a big worry for most homeless individuals, advocates, and officials, many, including those at the Department of Homeless Services, don’t consider the impacts of climate change, indicating they have shorter-term concerns. But Ferrara-Rodriquez, whose life was destroyed after Superstorm Sandy, said her outlook has shifted. "If Sandy hasn’t changed you or taught you a lesson, I don’t know what will. You could become homeless in an instant," she said. "Living by the water all these years, I can tell you it is getting worse and the patterns are changing."
Simson also thought about the changing weather’s effect on the homeless after Superstorm Sandy. The Monday night the storm hit, Simson was at her shelter, Susan’s Place in the Mount Hope section of the Bronx. She didn’t have phone access and she wasn’t allowed to use the two dormant computers in the shelter. Normally Simson takes a 40-minute subway ride to the New Amsterdam Library near City Hall to access the web, but the state shut down mass transit. The shelter has a television, so she could watch the local news with her roommates, but the anchors didn’t tell Simson what she needed to know. She was worried about some of her homeless friends downtown who would not be in shelter. Simson was still shaking her head angrily about it in a conversation three months later. She noted that scientists had predicted storm surges, like the one from Sandy and other hurricanes, could harm the city.
"They knew that things were going to change. The earth, it doesn’t stay static," Simson said, her brows furrowed. "It isn’t just the climate, it’s the people’s idiocy and their inability to deal with reality, weather reality, regardless of its costs."
Ten days earlier, a Don’t Walk By outreach team came across a young couple with huge backpacks not far from 5th Street and Avenue A, where the two DHS volunteers had approached the men sleeping in the January cold. Stella and Edgar told the outreach group they were homeless, but have been together for years. Stella, her eyes wide as she took a care kit from one volunteer, hastily explained their marriage was common law, making them ineligible for an adult family shelter. With no money to arrange a state marriage and because there aren’t any single adult couple shelters, Stella and Edgar slept in the street. "I need to sleep next to my husband. I love him," Stella said. "I would rather be curled up in the cold with him than separated in shelter."
The below-freezing temperature that day made Stella’s skin look cracked. A cut on her hand bled little red droplets onto the cold, grey sidewalk. "At least it isn’t snowing," one female volunteer said, smiling kindly. Stella laughed, though a cough cut off the coarse sound. "The snow isn’t so bad," she said. "It doesn’t get you wet like the rain."
Statue of Liberty graphic courtesy of New York Cares.