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I Spent the 2015 Blizzard with New York's Homeless

As the streets and subways went dark Monday, the city's growing homeless population settled in for the storm.

af John Surico
28 januar 2015, 4:26pm

Photos by author

I met Alberto Lora at our last stop Monday night, outside the public plaza at the Sony building, on 55th Street and Madison Avenue, as he waited in line for whatever was left of the food being handed out by the Coalition for the Homeless workers. As the streets emptied and the blizzard settled in, Lora described how New York City's homelessness crisis is only getting worse. "The cops don't know what to do with us anymore," he told me. "The subways are packed at night with people sleeping like me. It's a major resource for us, so without it, I don't know what to do."

"Why is it like this here? In this country?" he asked. "This storm is going to be bad for some people. Real bad."

Lora had learned about the storm the night before, from a video billboard in Times Square. "This will most likely be one of the largest blizzards in the history of New York City," Mayor Bill de Blasio had announced from above. To Lora, a 42-year-old homeless man, it meant one thing: "I've gotta find somewhere to sleep."

Thousands of other New Yorkers were in the same spot: Stuck in what was supposed to be a historic blizzard, with nowhere to go. The number of homeless people in New York City has ballooned in the last decade, with roughly 60,000 people sleeping in shelters on a given night, and thousands more living on the streets. Incidentally, the city's annual homeless census was supposed to take place Monday but had to be postponed because of the storm.

Still, like clockwork, the Coalition for the Homeless soup vans met on the side of St. Bartholomew's Church at 7 PM Monday night, preparing to hit the emptying streets, now occupied only by the occasional delivery guy and inoperable bus. The service, which delivers some 1,000 nightly meals, couldn't miss a night—especially not last night. The vans made their rounds even during Hurricane Sandy, and the 2015 blizzard was no different.

"Most of the people we serve have been with us for a while," said Juan De La Cruz, the Coalition's food director. "Clients know we're gonna be there every night, no matter what. Many of them are invisible to everyone else."

Inside the church, the Coalition distributed upward of 220 meals before departing along its three delivery routes. While De La Cruz's van made its way to the Bronx, Paul Fitzgerald, a full-time staff member with the Coalition, took our van around Manhattan, driving up the West Side to Harlem, and then back down east, past Central Park. The path originated in 1985, the year of the program's inception, and once followed the city's now extinct homeless encampments. But although the encampments have cleared out, the homeless still know when and where to be to get a meal—which, for many of them, will be their first of the day.

Fitzgerald told us he has seen Bishop at this stop numerous times before. This tends to happen, he said: seeing the same old faces. At the next stop, closer to 11th Avenue's tunnels and industrial lots, Frank assumes that mainstay position; an older white homeless man with plastic bags on his feet, who asks for shoes but refuses them every time they're offered. On Monday night, he was shivering and scared to get his bags wet, so Fitzgerald handed food and socks to him over a snow patch.

"There's never been a night that I've driven when there wasn't a single person out, looking for food," Fitzgerald said, as we take off. His job puts him at the frontline of the swell in New York's homeless population. Since 2013, when de Blasio took office, the number of people living in homeless shelters has grown 13 percent, while the so-called "unsheltered" population has spiked by 6 percent. The numbers have been startling, Fitzgerald said, particularly among women and children, who were once rarely seen waiting for the Coalition's vans. As of November, there were reportedly 24,760 children living in New York City shelters.

Each year, the Coalition has to order more soup and oranges to meet skyrocketing demands. The annual coat drive, hosted by New York Cares, was recently moved to a larger space. "I have cops coming up to me and asking, 'What do we do?'" Fitzgerald said while driving. "There's just too many homeless people, they say, and they're asking me about alternative venues to place them in."

He explained that the individuals he encounters fall into three categories: poor and food-insecure, sheltered, or living on the streets. That pattern was visible Monday night: Some people, like Warren, were not homeless, but still had nothing to eat in the project housing nearby. Others, like Jacob, lived in the city's much-despised shelter system, calling the NYC Department of Homeless Services "worse than Republicans, because they're supposed to be on your side but still don't help you." And then, there were people like Alberto Lora, who spends his nights in subway cars but, with the blizzard travel ban in place, was worried about finding a plan B.

When temperatures drop, as they did Monday night, the city issues what is known as a "Code Blue," which means that shelters must take in anyone who comes through the door, setting aside eligibility rules to ease the process. James Winans, a spokesperson for the Bowery Mission, told me on Monday afternoon that the retreat would likely see large numbers that night, and that he expected to fill "every nook and cranny," using the dining area, chapel, and second floor to accommodate what has already been a rising tide in occupants. The city's Department of Homeless Services also announced Monday that it was doubling the number of outreach units in all five boroughs to transport people to nearby shelters.

Back in the van, the numbers who showed up in Harlem were a bit higher than the first few stops; a trend Fitzgerald said is due to the lack of food services uptown. But the crowds along the route were thinner than usual—on a normal winter night, the Coalition crew hands out 200 meals, closer to 300 during the summer. As inclement weather barreled into the tri-state area, more individuals appeared to have already sought shelter.

Arriving at a Central Park inlet—one of the last stops on the van's path southward—we found the park abandoned, swept barren by high-velocity winds; the benches where homeless men usually sit, waiting for the van, were empty. "If they're not here, that means they went to find food elsewhere," Fitzgerald said, stationed outside of the park around 9 PM. "But at this point, we're just hoping they've found somewhere to stay."

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