Blizzard 2015: How Boston and NYC are helping the homeless

In light of the blizzard, Boston and New York City have lifted restrictions on the homeless staying in shelters and are taking other steps. What can you do to help? 

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Former homeless U.S. Navy veteran Wayne Tillman, left, speaks with Mass. Dept. of Veterans Services outreach team leader Christopher Doyle, right, in Boston in 2013. No longer homeless due in part to government vouchers that subsidize his housing, Tillman still prefers spending much of his time on the street in front a train station where he was once homeless.

As a blizzard of epic proportions threatens to plunge cities from New York to Boston into as much as three feet of snow, those concerned about the homeless are taking emergency actions.

Boston Public Health Commission’s Director of Public Affairs, McKenzie Ridings, says that the city has issued an "amnesty order" allowing all those who have previously been banned from shelters due to acts of violence to enter homeless shelters during the storm.

“In light of the oncoming snow storm the city is coordinating with our network of emergency shelters, fire, EMS, police and transit departments to make sure all our guests are safe and cared for during this storm,” says Ms. Ridings in a phone interview. “We will also keep the shelters open during the day.”

Typically, homeless shelters are closed from dawn until dusk and those living on the street are asked to find alternate places to be during daylight hours while shelters are cleaned and maintained and guests are encouraged to seek social services, jobs, and other forms of assistance.

“We will be encouraging our guests to remain in the shelters for the duration of the storm in order to remain safe,” Ridings says. “There will also be teams in vans driving around what we call ‘hot spots’ for homeless looking out for those who may be in need of food, warm clothing, shelter or medical attention.”

Citizens in Boston are being asked to call 911 if they see a homeless person they think may be in need of shelter or medical attention.

“It doesn’t have to be an emergency,” Ridings says. “It’s a part of what our EMS and police services do is to perform wellness checks for frostbite or hypothermia.”

Also, there is a smartphone app called Citizen Connect whereby users can report the needs of the homeless or destitute during the storm and at any time. The free app is available via the Google Play store as well as the iTunes store.

Those who want to assist the city’s homeless by contributing items needed for use by Boston’s various programs,  Ridings recommends checking the website for Friends of Boston’s Homeless for a list of items currently being collected by that group.

In New York City, Code Blue policies are now in effect, according to the Coalition for the Homeless there.

According to the Coalition’s website, Code Blue means that the temperature has fallen below 32 degrees F. or the wind chill is below zero F. and that there is either an ice storm, freezing rain, or snowfall greater than six inches.

According to the Coalition’s website this means that the following changes are now in effect for the City of New York’s homeless:

 Drop in centers are required to take as many clients as possible, within the Department of Buildings restrictions.

  • Anyone in need of a place to go can walk into single adult or family shelters, without undergoing typical intake and eligibility procedures for the night in question.
  • For single adults, who have been in shelter in the past, can access any shelter, not just their assigned shelter for the night in question.
  • Heating vans or centers may be provided.
  • More outreach teams will be on the streets to offer services and shelter.
  • No shelter suspensions or sanctions can be carried out on these dates – clients who have been sanctioned can return to the shelter for the night in question, if necessary.

Despite the best efforts of cities and private advocates, some homeless people choose to remain outside shelters, even in stormy weather. In a 2014 article, the social awareness website Care2  lists the top 10 reasons why homeless people choose to remain outside shelters and, according to the story, “about 700 a year [die] in the United States” annually.

In addition to a lack of beds, the list includes: fear of shoe theft (a major issue for many shelters across the nation), worry over contracting lice or bed bugs, lack of family shelters and fear of physical or sexual abuse from the mentally ill or drug addicted among the homeless population.

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