De Blasio Administration Acts Quickly to Protect Vulnerable Homeless Kids & Families from the Cold

Mayor de Blasio’s new administration acted quickly to re-instate “Code Blue” shelter guarantees for homeless families seeking shelter – overturning a dangerous and much-criticized policy shift made by the Bloomberg administration that turned away families from the shelter door during sub-freezing cold.

First the background: As we wrote earlier this year, sometime before last winter the Bloomberg administration eliminated longstanding protections for homeless families and children who were applying for shelter during “Code Blue” weather emergencies (when temperatures fall below 32 degrees F), as well as during “Code Red” hot-weather emergencies. Previously the City had guaranteed shelter placements to applicant families during such weather emergencies, even when the application process had not been completed or the family had re-applied after a shelter denial – many of which are wrongful.

However, as the New York Daily News reported last February, all of that changed more than a year ago:

Families seeking refuge on frigid winter nights were once guaranteed a place in the city’s shelters.

Not anymore.

Homeless advocates and elected officials are accusing the Bloomberg administration of turning families away from shelter when the temperature plunges below freezing.

Take Junior Clarke, 23, and his family. The dad said city workers told him to leave the Bronx PATH Center — an intake hub for families — during a cold snap last month.

“They tried to send us outside into the cold,” said Clarke, 23, who was with his his wife, Kaneesha, 23, and 4-year-old daughter, Janiah. “They threatened to have us thrown out by police.”

The city historically invoked “code blue” status when the temperature dipped below freezing, easing shelter restrictions to get people indoors.

It’s not clear when, exactly, the city altered its policy and started enforcing rules requiring some shelter residents to prove they have nowhere else to go — even on cold winter nights.

Homeless advocates first noticed the policy change this winter due to the long stretch of bitter cold.

Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio refused to answer questions about when the policy changed — or why. She failed to return multiple phone calls made over a week and refused to grant an interview with Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond, who did not respond to emailed questions.

The change also got the attention of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilwoman Annabel Palma (D-Bronx) who sent a letter to Diamond last month. “We are deeply concerned about DHS’ current practice of denying some families overnight placement during extreme weather,” they wrote.

Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst with the Coalition for the Homeless, said his agency began noticing that families were being turned away this year. He said the city was evasive with his agency but eventually acknowledged the code blue policy was changed last winter. “The fact that city officials refuse to admit they changed their ‘code blue’ policy for families seeking shelter only underlines how misguided and dangerous it is to turn children and parents into the streets on freezing cold nights,” Markee said.

Now, along last, there’s good news: Immediately after taking office last week, Mayor de Blasio and his administration acted to reverse this dangerous and mean-spirited policy shift. Under the leadership of new Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, the administration swiftly acted to restore the guarantee of shelter during frigid cold.

As the Daily News reported this week:

Homeless advocates are cheering for a new policy instituted by Mayor de Blasio that guarantees shelter to homeless families on the coldest nights of the year.

“It’s a very positive change that’s going to help some very vulnerable families and children,” said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless.

Under the Bloomberg administration, a family that had previously been denied shelter would be turned away from a city-run shelter even on a “Code Blue” night — if the temperature dropped below 32 degrees for more than four hours.

The city’s Department of Homeless Services would review a family’s application and if nothing had changed — such as the city finding that the family had another option — the family would be denied shelter.

Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Lilliam Barrios-Paoli changed that policy on her first week in the job.

“As her very first directive, Deputy Mayor Barrios-Paoli ensured that any family seeking shelter on cold nights — regardless of their eligibility — will be granted shelter in New York City,” de Blasio spokesman Phil Walzak said.

Denis Hamill from the Daily News visited the Bronx intake center for homeless families to see firsthand the impact of this welcome change:

A young couple bent into the 12-degree chill on Friday at 12:35 p.m., pushing a stroller down a ramp at the homeless intake center at 151 E. 151 St. called Preventive Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) that sits on a freezing, wind-swept corner of the South Bronx like a fortress of bureaucratic failure.

Mayor de Blasio has inherited the largest homeless population in city history with some 50,000 people in shelters — 22,000 of them children. All of them must pass through this intake center that is a living, wheezing, shameful part of Bloomberg’s legacy.

Last year Bloomberg proved that the heart grows colder with three terms when he ended a guarantee of shelter for anyone when the temperature dropped below freezing.

“One piece of good news out of the de Blasio administration on its second day is a Code Blue Policy of guaranteeing shelter for all families and children when temperatures drop below 32 degrees,” says Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless.

“That’s a good start,” said Jayson Romero, 22, from Brownsville, Brooklyn, as his 9-month-old son, Jaybeon, slept in a stroller under a plastic hood, swathed in blankets. “I voted for the man. I liked that de Blasio was from Brooklyn. I liked the things he said. I’m glad he’s already putting his money where his mouth is.”

As we’ve noted for months, Mayor de Blasio is unfortunately inheriting an unprecedented homelessness crisis, the result of years of misguided and punitive policies. There is a lot of work ahead to begin reducing NYC’s record-high homeless population and to undo some mean-spirited policies. The de Blasio administration’s swift action to protect vulnerable kids and families during the current arctic freeze is a welcome first step.