How New York's Massive Homeless Population Endured Winter 2015

I talked to homeless New Yorkers about taking refuge on the subway, watching out for the cops, and why sleeping on the street was sometimes better than staying in a homeless shelter.

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Mar 17 2015, 4:00am

Photo via Flickr user Jack Zalium

According to Mike Austin, the E line was the most popular subway for homeless people in New York City this winter. It never goes above ground, he says, making it ideal for a warm night of sleep. The B and D trains were nice, too: You could ride them back and forth all night, from the Bronx to Brooklyn.

Just be ready for the cops.

It happens quickly. All of a sudden, a late-night subway freezes at the platform, that brake sound suggesting the train isn't going anywhere fast—or at least that it will stick around long enough for undercover NYPD officers (as Austin describes them) to scour each car. For cops, the line's last stops must make for natural targets: That way, all they have to do is wait for whoever is sleeping on the train to roll right in.

The night before we spoke, Austin, an elderly black man, sought refuge on another train, the A—which in his experience attracted fewer cops. It was windy and cold, and he took it to its Queens terminus, in Far Rockaway, and awoke to an NYPD badge. The 51-year-old was given a fair warning: He could get on another line, but the cop didn't want him to see him on that train again. Other officers weren't as forgiving: Over this past winter, Austin tells me, he was locked up for 72 hours in jail simply for being homeless on a Bronx-bound D train.

"The thing that always confused me was the club crowd. They'd come on the subway late at night after drinking," Austin says. "And the cops would single us out. I don't know whether it was because of nationality or the way we dressed. How can you determine who's homeless or not?"

(The NYPD has been reached for comment on this policy, but I have yet to hear back.)

Several homeless men tell me subway cars would regularly be filled at night with those temporarily escaping blizzard after blizzard—at least until the morning commute. "It's a major resource for us, so without it, I don't know what to do," Alberto Lora, 42 and homeless, told me the night of the first major blizzard, right before the subways were shut down. "The cops don't know what to do with us anymore."

The stories I heard throughout the winter paint a picture of the bad old days of New York in the 70s and 80s, when crime and poverty spiked. Except this time around, the city has escaped everything but the specter of the homeless—and the late-night scene on the subway system was just one testament to a luxury city that hasn't figured out how to look after its most vulnerable.

Throughout the winter at the intersection of 127th Street and Park Avenue, men could be seen side by side underneath an East Harlem school's awnings, heavily drinking just to cope with the cold. A tent was pitched across from the New York Public Library, at 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue, and "cardboard condos" went up throughout Midtown—under scaffolds, in alcoves, and next to churches. And then there were hubs: Port Authority Bus Terminal, Penn Station, Atlantic Terminal, Fulton Street, along with the major subway stations.

When he wasn't underground, Austin would stay awake and walk around South Street Seaport, close to Wall Street businesses where he could dumpster-dive for dinner. He heard that many homeless folks set up shop again on the West Side of Manhattan, and even that some headed back down the old Amtrak tracks—home to the mole people of urban legend.

"I wouldn't go down there if I was you," he advises me.

As of this article's publication, more than 60,000 New Yorkers are sleeping in the largest shelter system in America every night, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. But some refuse to go there, at least in part out of resentment. "A shelter is more of a jail than going to a jail cell," Austin tells me. A recent Department of Investigation probe found rats, leaks, and all sorts of trouble inside 25 of New York City's shelters.

The Bedford-Pacific Armory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is the site of an enormous shelter for homeless men, as well as a busy work corner. But homeless people sometimes chose to sleep in the indents of the Armory's rigid brick exterior, rather than inside the place. "I feel much more safe being out here than in there," a homeless man who goes by the name Fashion tells me. "No matter the temperature."

The structure, he says, helped block out the snow and wind.

If temperatures drop below freezing, the city issues what is known as a Code Blue. In essence, it's homeless crisis mode: Emergency drop-in shelters must take anyone who enters, and homeless individuals sleeping on the streets or on subways are asked by Department of Homeless Services (DHS) officials and police officers if they want to go to a shelter or hospital until the morning.

There were no forcible removals of homeless people—those who refuse services but are suffering from hypothermia, for example—from the street this year, according to a DHS spokesperson. And the number of Code Blues compared to last winter was pretty much the same. Even so, individuals I spoke to say it wasn't the temperatures that made things worse—it was the stuff on the ground they were sleeping on.

"Last year, you had the polar vortex, and in my 52 years of life, I've never felt cold like that," Austin, who's a member of homeless advocacy group Picture the Homeless, says. "But this year was worse because of the snow."

The DHS budget for this type of outreach doubled this past year, from $35 million to $45 million, the spokesperson says. The number of outreach vans on overnight shifts, too, went from five to ten. Another ten vans were added to the subway outreach fleet. The most vulnerable clients were checked four times per shift for hypothermia and frostbite, and the beds for them increased from 750 to 1,000.

But there's a frustratingly familiar sense out there among advocates for the city's homeless that they just can't meet demand.

"It's this gap between what we're able to request, and what we can fill," Gary Bagley, the executive director of New York Cares, says. "That gap is a story that has nagged at us for a couple of years now."

Each winter, New York Cares hosts its citywide coat drive, the largest of its kind in New York and one made famous by its mascot: a Statue of Liberty shivering in the cold. This year, the group received 103,000 coat requests, but could only fill 75,000 of them. They ran out in February, just as the worst of winter was settling in.

Bagley attributes the disparity to the rise in requests from the working poor. The homeless aren't alone in needing warm coats—low-income families with housing are in the mix, too. And New Yorkers who do have coats are less willing to give them up. That's why the majority of New York Cares' local fundraising efforts come from the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, and Park Slope—neighborhoods where New Yorkers have a bit more disposable income.

It "keeps getting harder to get to that 75,000 coats," Bagley explained. "And requests just keep going up."

Fortunately for the sake of the city's massive homeless population, winter is (finally) coming to an end. The snow on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Pacific Street has melted, and now that temperatures are on the rise, the police have cleared most subway stations of homeless at night, Austin tells me. This winter is one he'll never forget: He had to be constantly on the move, avoiding the cold cruelty of the NYPD and the weather at the same time.

"It's like a war on the homeless," he tells me solemnly. "As a homeless man, you become an invisible person."

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