For a good number of people, the blizzard that enveloped New York this past weekend was more of a nuisance than anything else. Sure, people were trapped inside and flights were cancelled, but those complaining about the snow on social media often had a place to stay and hunker down until the danger passed. But what about New York City’s large homeless population? How did the people who had no choice but to remain outside handle the harsh weather that descended upon them? According to Vice, the effort to save as many people as possible involved an entire city’s worth of outreach services.
Vice reports that NYC — already facing criticism over its treatment of the homeless population — sprang into action as soon as the weather began to get intense. Not only did the Department of Homeless Services immediately begin contacting people who were known to be vulnerable on the streets (those that might not be as resourceful at finding shelter on their own), but it was also the first time the city used HOME-STAT, “an aggressive new program” that’s meant to perform triage and get people to safety as quickly as possible — even when the weather is threatening to shut down an entire city.
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.
At the same time, homeless outreach programs continued operating food trucks (although on a limited basis) and a “code blue” was put into effect, meaning that anyone being dropped off at a hospital or shelter could stay there until the harsh weather had passed.
While it’s important to acknowledge the fact that many lives were saved when these measures were put into place, advocates for the homeless (some of whom are homeless themselves) are concerned that the city is “patting itself on the back” for its quick response and calling their work done. But how much good have these programs done, the people who spoke to Vice wonder, when those who were in hospitals and shelters are released back onto the streets. How many people will survive not just this storm, but what might end up becoming one of the harshest winters on record?