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How New York's Homeless Lived Through This Weekend's Blizzard

Outreach workers attempted to get the city's most vulnerable citizens to safety, but some homeless people say the system was more accommodating.

A homeless man takes shelter in Central Park on January 23, 2016 in New York. Photo by Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty For New York City's record-high number of homeless men, women, and children, the winter of 2015 was especially brutal. A constant barrage of snow slammed the city almost weekly, causing hundreds of those sleeping on the streets to seek refuge in "cardboard condos," and on subway cars, preferably away from the gaze of police officers who threatened to pass them along to overflowing shelters and hospitals. Frozen, and with numbers of homeless rising to Great Depression levels, the city's outreach budget basically doubled overnight. The winter of 2016 was shaping out to be relatively better. Temperatures in NYC were worriedly warm for weeks on end, so much so that Christmas Day felt more like Memorial Day here. Drops to freezing temperatures were rare, and there was no snow in sight. The homeless, as it would seem, had finally caught a break. But unfortunately, that all changed this past weekend. From Friday night to Sunday morning, Mother Nature dumped what felt like the entirety of winter 2015's snow in one sitting; The blizzard that never arrived last year finally showed up, in full force, with a whopping 26.8 inches of white powder in total. The accumulation put New York City—and the entire East Coast, for that matter—at a standstill, as subways, buses, and roads were in total lockdown mode for hours on end. It was the second-worst snowstorm in New York City's history, at a time when its homeless numbers are now clearing the 60,000 mark—and that's just in the shelters. And, for America's richest city, it was a true test of how a mayoral administration, already saddled with criticism over its homelessness efforts, could handle what many advocates have long deemed a crisis for its most vulnerable citizens in the most desperate times. According to DHS Assistant Commissioner for Street Solutions Danielle Minelli-Pagnotta*, the outreach teams are "usually out 24/7 in each borough," but before the storm, they specifically targeted their "vulnerable client list," which has about 300 members. These are homeless individuals who perhaps pose the greatest risk to themselves, including those with mental health issues who have nowhere else to go. But luckily, she added, "most of those people, we did not see [outside]." The effort was the most direct usage thus far of HOME-STAT, an aggressive new program announced in December that deploys both police officers and outreach workers to "hot spots" or homeless encampments throughout Manhattan. With weatherized vehicles and extra gas, enhanced outreach began at 8 PM on Friday night, when the first snow began to fall, and continued around the clock until 8 AM Monday morning. Each team, according to the city, saw 38 vulnerable clients per night, and as of last count, the outreach workers brought 132 individuals into traditional locations and emergency rooms by the storm's end. While Mayor Bill de Blasio advised anyone who saw someone in need to dial 311, which acts as a help hotline for the city, the number of calls increased, a city official told me. During that time, and since then, a Code Blue has been firmly in place, meaning that no one could be turned away from a shelter, city hospital, or drop-off site. However, as of a recent edict by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, a life-threatening storm like this requires the city and state to actively place homeless individuals in shelter—a controversial provision that has been labeled by advocates as excessive force, and criticized by city officials who argue they already had that power. By the storm's end, a city official said, seven individuals were involuntarily brought to hospitals for mental health evaluations. For the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group and think tank, Saturday night was like any other for one of its integral services: the food van. "In its existence, the van has never missed a night," Giselle Routhier, the policy director of the Coalition, affirmed. "And we're happy to say it went out on Saturday." "But it wasn't easy in any way," she quickly added. The food van route, which VICE tagged along for during last year's no-show blizzard, starts at Saint Bartholomew's Church, in midtown Manhattan, and travels all over the island. The stops are pre-set, so clients know when and where the van will be. After it leaves, some then venture to shelters, while others stick to the streets. But on the night of the blizzard, the van only made it to more popular stops. "On Saturday, it was a bit limited," Routhier explained. "At St. Bart's, we had 60 people eating, who we then told to go to shelters. But we went out at a certain time, so it's hard to say with any certainty who went to shelters, or hospitals, after they ate." It's difficult in general to calculate just how many individuals sleep on the streets of New York on any given night, let alone during a massive blizzard. Exact figures are hard to nail down; as Minelli-Pagnotta explained, "We have no tracking devices for each person in the city… But we're confident that not many people slept on the streets during this storm." And Patrick Byer, 40, agreed: The number on Saturday night was low, but not zero. Before Friday night, Byer, who has been homeless for 12 years now, said he had his fingers crossed. "I heard it might miss us," he told me, laughing. "And I was really hoping for that." But when it did hit, Byer entered Harlem Hospital to go to the bathroom and ended up staying for the remainder of the storm. That first night, the ER's waiting room was somewhat empty, but as the storm strengthened, with nearly three inches hitting the ground every hour, it swelled with those coming off the streets. People slept on the floor, or on small metal benches. "It was safe," Byer pointed out, "but not too comfortable." During that time, Byer said he spoke with others who had friends waiting out the storm on the streets, or, more commonly, in subway cars and train stations. Others, he heard, were kicked out of certain locations for arguing or fighting, but these were more personal issues. Overall, though, he said the city "did a little better" than last year with the homeless response. But still, problems persist. "There should be specific places for situations like this," Byer, who is also a member of Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization made up of the city's most vulnerable, argued. "An emergency space with shelter and a meal, instead of a bed in an emergency room. Just somewhere people can rest their head safely at night." Regardless, Byer said he was grateful for his stay at the hospital, whose personnel did feed its occupants, and said he preferred it any day over a city shelter, which are notoriously perilous and decrepit. That issue, along with supportive housing and employment, are things that do not disappear after the storm, Byer reminded me. Routhier of the Coalition of the Homeless agreed, and told me she received a call this morning about a heating issue from a city shelter. The lobby at the Coalition, she added, was already filled with those who had complaints, many of which were storm-related. "The city sees the temporary shelter and outreach work as an easy, quick solution, like that's enough," Byer argued. "They pat themselves on the back, like they did something really big." "But what happens after the storm?" he then asked me. "We just go back to the same situation." *This article has been updated to clarify Danielle Minelli-Pagnotta's title and correct a misspelling of her name. To help the homeless in NYC, residents are encouraged to volunteer, either as outreach workers, tutors in shelters, or homeless prevention. You could also donate to, or volunteer with, the Coalition for the Homeless's food van. Many shelters, like the Bowery Mission, take donations as well, and have volunteers feed the homeless. Clothes for those in need can be donated to New York Cares. Follow John on Twitter.