As temperatures drop, city shelters pack in homeless

Joseph Diaby eats a hot meal at the New York City Rescue Mission in Manhattan on Jan. 29.
Joseph Diaby eats a hot meal at the New York City Rescue Mission in Manhattan on Jan. 29.

Joseph Diaby, 65, a homeless West African immigrant who often stays at the New York City Rescue Mission in downtown Manhattan, used to sleep in one of the shelter’s handful of beds. But for Diaby, a sharp increase in needy people this winter has meant having to sleep on a mat on the cafeteria floor.

“I’m not used to this,” Diaby said Wednesday, over a hot meal of meat and rice the shelter provided to residents.

New York City shelters are taking in more homeless people — sometimes over capacity — as severe weather continues to freeze the city, city officials and homeless shelters said.

The number of homeless sleeping at the New York City Rescue Mission at 90 Lafayette St., a private organization, has more than doubled over the last month, from about 40 a night to more than 100 people a night, said the mission’s director of communications, Michelle Tolson.

“We’re putting them in the chapel area, the hallways near the heat, anywhere we can,” Tolson said. “It’s too bitterly cold sleeping on a corner, especially with the winds right now.”

The weather is forcing more people to come to Queen of Peace Home, a shelter in the Bronx, said employee Mary Frank.

“We take in anyone who needs help,” Frank said.

City-run shelters and private organizations alike are following a city policy, called Code Blue, which allows shelters to take in more people than capacity when temperatures drop below 32 degrees for more than four hours.

Under the Bloomberg administration, homeless people that had previously been denied shelter could be turned away from a city-run shelter even on the coldest nights of the year. Mayor Bill de Blasio overturned that policy earlier this month, guaranteeing that every homeless person could stay in a city-run shelter on Code Blue nights even if the shelter was full.

The city’s Department of Homeless Services said it has received about 10 times more calls for assistance this month than in December and has been canvassing the city for homeless people who need a place to spend the night.

The latest cold spell comes as New York City’s current homeless population of more than 60,000 surpasses anything in the city’s record, and is the highest known figure since the Great Depression, according to Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group.
During the past 12 years, when Michael Bloomberg was mayor, the number of homeless New Yorkers in shelters rose by more than 71 percent, according to Coalition for the Homeless.
The city does not have plans to open additional shelters.

Jose Peguero, 59, who said he was eventually driven to homelessness after he lost his AIG-invested savings during the financial crisis, said he usually sought shelter in subway stations before the cold spell but has been staying at downtown Manhattan shelters because of the cold. On Wednesday, as temperatures hovered around 20 degrees, Peguero passed the time inside at New York City Rescue Mission.

“I can’t stay in the wind,” Peguero said. “The killer is the wind.”

The latest cold spell comes days after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a budget that prohibits a state-funded rental subsidy program that Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he plans to develop. De Blasio’s plan would reinstate a program canceled under the Bloomberg administration that provides temporary rental subsidies to people living in shelters.

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