Kate Graft who is homeless, doesn’t know if she would go to a shelter if this weekend weather continues to plunge. Photo by Rakeesha Wrigley
This weekend’s bone-chilling weather could be life threatening for New York City’s homeless population. Forecasters predict temperatures as low as three degrees on Sunday night. Adding snow to the icy streets, wintry weather heightens the risk of living outside.
In these weather conditions, the Department of Homeless Services (DOHS) activates its Code Blue policy. The policy is initiated when the temperature drops below 32 degrees because of the possibility of the homeless being injured or dying in the streets from hyperthermia. DOHS street outreach efforts are increased to check on the homeless and to offer them resources like shelters and drop-in centers. Still, many of the city’s street homeless choose to tough it out under sleeping bags, blankets and scaffoldings.
Kate Graft, 24, is from Maine and has been homeless since being kicked out of her parents’ house at 15.
“I would rather freeze on the streets than go into a shelter,” Graft said. “We don’t want to stay with drunk home bones (older homeless men) who piss themselves or have bugs.”
On Tuesday, the DOHS conducted its annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) in midtown Manhattan. At midnight, over 3,000 volunteers combed the five boroughs with HOPE surveys and offers of shelter for the homeless. Joshua Rodriguez, 27, who works as a multimedia director in the daytime, volunteered to give back by giving his time.
“I like the experience of trying to help and give back to people in need,” Rodriguez said. “I always have somewhere to go at night whereas a lot of people don’t.”
Rodriguez teamed up with his friend Tehura Banks, 34, a rent administrator for Common Ground to survey the areas between 50th St. and 10th Ave.
They came upon a homeless woman covering her shopping carts with plastic, and a homeless man preparing his bed on the sidewalk. Rodriguez offered them shelter for the night.
“I just want to stay here and work,” the woman said.
She had barricaded herself behind a barrage of about seven shopping carts where she served as a shopkeeper and her carts a type of thrift store. Her sale items were distributed among her carts. She had carefully covered her items in cardboard and plastic to protect them from potential snow and rain. The carts, the scaffolding from the building she was under and the well-lit gas station to her left were her security from both the weather and unwanted visitors.
“I don’t want anything from the government,” she said. “I don’t want to go into a shelter. I have everything I need right here. Last time I went I was attacked.”
There are over 268 shelters in New York City operating under the Right to Shelter mandate which provides temporary emergency shelter to eligible men, women and children in distress. Despite awareness of shelters, many of the homeless prefer the street, using the subway stations as temporary housing until removed by the police.
Studies show that the majority of the homeless living on the streets, are mentally ill, suffer from drug addiction or have serious health issues. Four out of five street homeless New Yorkers are men, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. There is no accurate count of the number of homeless in the city streets, but the coalition estimates that figure to be in the thousands. Most
live on the streets of midtown Manhattan.
Marc Clemente, 29, from Connecticut, has been on the street since he was 17. He said he only uses the subway for shelter in emergency.
“If it gets really bad we just go down to the subway and wait for the police to kick us out or arrest us,” Clemente said. “Other than that we just go to the scaffolding and layer blanks on us.”
Recently Jeff, who did not want to give his last name, a homeless man in Buffalo, New York lost both of his legs to frostbite. Luckily, someone found him before he died. Stories like this aren’t unfamiliar to Clemente.
“An acquaintance of mine passed out and urinated on himself,” he said. “The next morning he was dead, frozen to the sidewalk. They had to scrape him off.”
Nichols, who did not give his last name, 32, is from Florida. After finding syringes in his bedroom drawer, his foster family kicked him out. He’s been homeless for 15 years.
“January 17th was negative 11 degrees and we had a whole camp set up with a tent, fire pit, and a wood burning stove,” Nichols said. “We just burned everything in sight. It’s actually a pretty mild winter compared to last winter. It hasn’t got too bad yet, I don’t think it’s going to get any worse.”
A Styrofoam container of hot soup, a loaf of bread, an orange, and a carton of milk may not seem like much of meal, but for the increasing number of homeless people living in New York’s streets, these meals provided by the Coalition of the Homeless’ Grand Central Food Program is often their only meal of the day.
New York City’s homeless population continues to increase in 2014, and with this year’s harsh winter overpopulating many of the available shelters, more and more homeless people are forced to live on the streets.
“Most of the individuals we serve work, but can’t afford housing,” said Farnell Williams, who has been volunteering for the non-profit program for the last 20 years. “And when they have five or six children and shelters won’t accept or only take in a certain number, they don’t want to be separated from their kids and so they’re left out on the street.”
Williams, 42, of White Plains, West Chester, has witnessed the increasing numbers during his many years with the program.
“The numbers of people we serve out on the streets have increased, and it’s unfortunate that in this completely wealthy city, we have this many homeless people,” said Williams.
In order to estimate the number of homeless individuals who live on the streets, the Department of Homeless Security conducts a yearly Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, or HOPE, with volunteers searching the city’s streets, subways, and parks to locate those who permanently live in these areas.
The numbers are used to allocate resources like shelters, outreach assistance, and drop-in centers throughout neighborhoods. However, restrictions the department must place during HOPE can leave a number of individuals out on the street overlooked.
“We don’t go into private businesses, residences, or buildings,” said department worker, Tonie Baez. “Particularly on a night where it’s very cold, you’ll see that there are large group of people inside these places that may be homeless and are going inside to keep warm.”
Volunteer safety is a crucial concern for HOPE, leaving dark alleys or areas that feel unsafe unchartered territory.
“It’s likely that volunteers aren’t finding individuals in more secluded locations because we don’t encourage them to go into anywhere that’s dangerous,” Baez said.
For the coalition’s program assistant, Bryan Moran, having neighborhoods where outreach is limited makes getting food to these areas crucial.
“We visit stops like South Ferry with people sleeping in the Staten Island ferry terminal, and we don’t see a lot of community outreach, soup kitchens, or mobile soup programs out there,” said Moran. “I mean even in the Upper West Side, a neighborhood known for it’s wealth, there’s still a lot of food insecurity in the neighborhood.”The Grand Central Food Program’s mission is to continue delivering hot meals 365 days a year, having continued its daily routes to uptown, downtown, and the Bronx throughout blackouts, Hurricane Sandy, and this year’s freezing temperatures.
“I don’t consider going out in these conditions crazy, because with the people we’re feeding, they’re in crazy situations,” said Farnell. “We’ll go home to a warm home, but these people are still out on the streets.
Standing behind a bar of rainbow colored sprinkles, blueberries and chocolate sauce was a smiling, but lonely staff member at a newly opened Red Mango frozen yogurt shop in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, yesterday.
The wait for a customer can sometimes be long for Christie Jorsling, 28, who is supposed to be a shift leader, but she is working alone because business is slow. Jorsling is counting down the days when the temperatures that see people running into coffee shops depart, and the dog days of summer drive those same people into ice cream or frozen yogurt shops.
“The cold is not my friend,” said Jorsling who said she only typically sees about 10 customers during her shift from noon to 4:00 p.m., and they are usually the same ones.
The story is the same at the five-month-old Yohielo frozen yogurt shop in Greenwich Village where Brittany Henry, 17, a cashier at the store, estimates that on a typical day when they first opened in September she would see around 250 customers. Now, she only sees around 20.
During her down time, Henry has to find other distractions.
“I read my book,” said Henry. “Or we [the staff] just chat together.”
Down the street, Yooglers Frozen Yogurt sees about a 50 percent drop in customers in the winter season. But management has decided to take a step away from the frozen business. Outside of their store is a sign that results in many cold heads turning to look: $1 coffee.
Anne Black, 24, is the manager of the shop. She said the decision has paid off and they have also started selling candy in bulk to draw in customers that might typically ignore the store during the cold months.
The seasonality of the ice cream and frozen yogurt business makes the location of the shops especially important, Black said because the Yooglers store is large it allows people to come in and hang out in a heated shop. But she said their business relies on three main groups of customers: tourists, students and regular customers. According to Black, Yooglers is able to bring in those three groups because of their location near New York University.
At Red Mango, Jorsling said because of her distaste for the cold, she admits she would have a hard time buying ice cream herself.
“I wouldn’t even know how to sell someone on that,” Jorsling said. “It’s hard for me to be like, yay cold things, when it’s really cold.”
But to customers in some of the brightly colored frozen yogurt shops playing happy music, the temperature didn’t impact their decision to eat the frozen treat.
“Its cold, and you’re miserable, and its always nice to treat yourself,” said Sam Whitlam, 28.
Reminders of summer are easy to find at ice cream and frozen yogurt shops around New York City, and while that may be one reason customers help keep the shops open until the warmer months, that’s not the main cause. The comfort the treat brings to the stomach are what customers said brings them back through the doors.
“The regulars, they legitimately love it,” said Jorsling. “They genuinely really love the product.”
That’s good news for shop owners because temperatures aren’t supposed to go above 30 degrees in New York City for the next three days.
New Yorkers got a little reprieve from the bitterly cold conditions that hit the city as well as different parts of the country over the last few weeks.
The mercury hit a high of 45 degrees around lunchtime on Monday afternoon because of warmer winds coming in from the south.
But that relief could be short lived, as seemingly arctic-like weather will force temperatures into a downward spiral overnight. They are expected to remain below seasonal averages for the next few days.
“Earlier it was fine, but now you can feel like it’s getting colder. I can already feel it,” said Amara Fofana, a sightseeing tour bus ticket vendor for Skyline Tours, which offers two-hour trips through midtown and downtown Manhattan.
Fofana spends eight hours a day in Times Square enticing tourists to ride one of 18 double-decker tour buses operated by the company.
Dressed in a hoodie and a windbreaker, the 39-year-old said he managed to sell roughly a dozen tickets on Monday. When the weather gets colder, he said, he relies on a different sales approach.
“I tell them about the heated downstairs of the bus,” he said. “The downstairs fills up quickly in the winter time.”
Big swings in weather, like the uptick that greeted New Yorkers early Monday afternoon are not uncommon for the city, said Edwin Gerber, assistant professor at New York University’s Center for Atmosphere Ocean Science.
“New York lies within a storm track, a region between the cold Arctic and the warm subtropics,” said Gerber. “When the jet stream wobbles poleward, we tend to get warm air from the south and west. When it swings cold, it’s wobbling the other direction, bring(ing) cold air from the north and west.”
Even with the warmer break on Monday, Fofana said this winter has been one of the coldest he has seen and is afraid the frigid temperatures might freeze up his bottom line.
“I sell tickets by commission. If I don’t sell tickets, I don’t get paid at the end of the week,” he said, cupping his gloved hands over his mouth.
Skyline typically sells 500 tickets a day, but is lucky if it can sell a few hundred when temperatures plummet, said supervisor-dispatcher, Johnny Morales.
“We had some people out earlier, but as you can see there’s no one coming in. It’s definitely dying down as it gets colder,” he said.
Morales, 26, said being outdoors in this kind of weather all day also presents other challenges, including personal safety.
“You’ve definitely got to stay warm,” he said, ducking into a bus full of rows of empty seats for shelter.
The Journal of the American Medical Association says people should wear appropriate clothing when outside (notably hats) and limit the amount of time outdoors when the weather is extremely cold to prevent getting frostbite.
“When we get the customers here we take them inside (the bus) and explain to them the route,” said Fofana, which helps both the vendors and the customers stay warm.
Willisha Norris, 42, who purchased a ticket, said she was planning on doing a lot of indoor activities while touring the city.
“I want to see the Empire State Building and I want to go up in there. And I got my little tickets and I’m very excited right now and I want to go ahead and go to the Gucci store in Macy’s,” she said. “But I’m okay with this weather, as long as it’s not snowing.”
The Weather Channel expects an overnight low of ten degrees with winds coming out of the northwest Monday evening followed by a high of 20 degrees on Tuesday and a 14-degree overnight low.
“If it really drops I have fur on. I’m not going to let the cold stop me,” Norris said, showing off her heavy fur coat. “I’ve got my gloves. We have shelter, cold and strength and we’re blessed.”