As New York City prepares for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, stocks up on essentials, shuts down its public transport system and evacuates 375,000 residents living in low lying areas, there is one part of the city’s population of 8.5 million people that is still roaming the streets: the homeless.
46,631 of them seek refuge every night in the city’s often criticized shelter system, and those are the ones that manage to get in. Many more stay out in the streets. Some, because there simply aren’t enough beds, others because the system - to address the chronic shortage of space - has become a byzantine labyrinth of rules and procedures for them to deal with, and finally many of the LGBT community who feel their sexual orientation exposes them to significant risks from other shelter inhabitants.
James, 43, from Harlem is one such homeless I encounter sitting outside an upscale grocery store on Sunday night, as Hurricane Sandy approaches the city, in the gentrified section of Harlem called Morningside. He is panhandling from the last few passersby hurring past in the rising winds of the approaching storm. As he sees my camera he wants to talk and so I ask him why he hasn’t sought refuge from the storm yet.
“I can’t go back to the shelter system for another two months,” he explains.
“Why?” I ask and point out that the city has just opened 76 emergency shelters around the five boroughs as part of their hurricane preparedness plan.
“Once you’ve been in the system for 18 months you can’t go back there for at least one year,” James responds. “Only once you’ve been out for a year, can you be classified as longterm homeless, and therefore get access to additional assistance.”
“But what about the emergency shelters? You cannot go to those either?” I ask again.
“No, they don’t want us there. These shelters are for the good folks, the families that get evacuated. There is no room in there for me.”
“Have you tried?” I ask, pointing out that there are 73,000 beds available, and last I heard only about 1,000 had been taken.
“I couldn’t get help during Irene,” James responds. “So, I’m not gonna bother this time. I can’t get into the trains and seek shelter there, because the subways are shut down.”