Despite “Code Blue”, no place to go for some

Even in freezing temperatures, Aaron Williams prefers to stay in subway stations than in the city's shelters.
Even in freezing temperatures, Aaron Williams prefers to stay in subway stations than in the city’s shelters.

At 7 p.m. on a frigid Tuesday in January, most New Yorkers scramble to get home.

Not Aaron Williams.

Instead, Williams, 54, is crouched on the corner of a landing at a Midtown subway station. He keeps warm with a heavy-duty garbage bag and by rubbing his hands over a lit can of Sterno in 12-degree weather. He does not ask passersby for money. Instead, he wishes them a good night.

Williams is one of the estimated 60,000 people considered to be homeless in New York City. Under a newly revised citywide policy known as “Code Blue”, temporary housing is guaranteed to the homeless when temperatures reach below 32 degrees for four consecutive hours. As such, volunteers from dozens of homeless outreach programs have spent countless hours in the last couple of weeks looking for men and women who need roofs over their heads. Despite these efforts, some unsheltered people like Williams reject them.

“In the shelters, people get robbed, beaten and raped. I can defend myself, but I don’t want to deal with that. That’s why I’d rather be out here, even if I’m freezing,” he said.

Indeed, this winter has undoubtedly been one of the coldest on record. For the ten citywide “Code Blue” drop-in centers, and approximately two dozen shelters, this has resulted in overcrowding. The most recent daily report on the Department of Homeless Services website is from Jan. 23. On that day, a reported total of 51,882 individuals lived on the streets.

Information regarding building capacity was unavailable and calls to various shelters and advocacy groups were not returned.

Most recently, the violence and abuse of which Williams refers to was brought to light in the New York Times’ exposé of a homeless child named Dasani. Williams admits that although there are security guards, they could not care less about what goes on.

For these reasons, the unsheltered homeless opt for city streets and increasingly, subway stations. On Jan. 27, the Department of Homeless Services conducted its annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE), in which 3,000 volunteers canvas public spaces to get a clearer number of the unsheltered homeless population.

Although this year’s numbers have not been released yet, last year’s data shows that over half of the 3,180 total unsheltered individuals were found at subway stations – a 118 percent increase since 2005.

To clean up stations, a special program known as MTA Connections operates with certain outreach groups such as the Bowery Residents’ Committee. According to the MTA, this contract includes 28 full-time employees, and the part-time services of a psychiatrist.

“Caseworkers steer homeless to social services or more appropriate settings off MTA property that include medical/mental health care, substance-abuse treatment, or immediate shelter,” said Kevin Ortiz, a spokesperson for the MTA. “Also, it’s not illegal to be homeless.  Homeless individuals cannot be involuntarily removed unless they are a harm to themselves or others.”

Williams is all too familiar with the rules and procedures of the shelters. But he is a skeptic. He does not believe or trust in the services provided to people in his situation. As two Bowery volunteers tried talking him in to going with them, a commuter walked by with a bag of food. He raised his sunken cheeks, and looked intently into her eyes.

“Thank you, miss,” he said gratefully.

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