Homeless New Yorkers and Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy has devastated homeless New Yorkers, whose numbers were at record-high levels before the storm. And even with the City’s successful efforts to prevent immediate harm to homeless shelter residents, the long-term impacts will be incalculable.

Even before the storm hit NYC, there were an all-time record 47,000 people – including nearly 20,000 children – crowding the municipal shelter system each night, a 20 percent increase from last year alone. An additional 5,000 homeless people slept each night in other public and private shelters. And thousands more homeless New Yorkers were sleeping rough on the streets and in the subway system.

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, then, will worsen New York’s already historic homelessness crisis, unless leaders at every level of government step in to address both urgent and long-term needs for housing and vital services.

Today, a little more than a week after the storm made landfall, we are still taking stock of the damage. Here is a summary of what we know about how the storm affected homeless New Yorkers:

• Many of the more than 230 municipal homeless shelters were located in flood and storm evacuation areas labeled “Zone A,” which were ordered evacuated by Mayor Bloomberg. By last Sunday night the NYC Department of Homeless Services – which made extraordinary efforts during the crisis – had re-located some 1,200 homeless single adults and 300 homeless families from such shelters. DHS added emergency shelter capacity in existing municipal shelters and made use of the limited vacancies throughout the system.

• Perhaps most important, DHS suspended its harmful and sadly routine practice of wrongfully denying shelter to families and children at intake centers; to date, DHS has continued to provide emergency shelter to families still in the application process and to families who sought shelter after the storm hit.

• After Hurricane Sandy struck, many municipal shelters were left without electricity and some without heat, particularly those in Manhattan below midtown. Most of those shelters operated with emergency generators, and, once again, DHS workers and non-profit shelter providers made extraordinary efforts to keep generators running amidst gasoline shortages and to provide food and other vital services to shelter residents.

• As of today, roughly a third of evacuated shelters have re-opened, but hundreds of homeless men and women are still in emergency beds.

• While the municipal shelter system avoided major damage, other public shelters and supportive housing programs were not spared. Several facilities serving homeless people living with HIV/AIDS were left without power and heat, jeopardizing the health of vulnerable people. And at least one such program, Bailey-Holt House in Manhattan, suffered extensive flooding.

• In addition, programs serving homeless youth – which were already overwhelmed before the storm – were severely impacted. Most alarming of all, the drop-in center of Ali Forney Center, an acclaimed organization serving homeless LGBT youth, was badly flooded and will probably need to be abandoned.

• Coalition for the Homeless was one of many organizations affected by the storm. Our Lower Manhattan headquarters was left without power until Friday evening, though we were fortunate that our building did not suffer serious damage. But our frontline service programs continued to provide urgent help throughout the week. Indeed, our acclaimed Grand Central Food Program sent its three feeding vans out every night except one, and distributed meals and blankets to hundreds of people each night in Manhattan and the Bronx, including in the blacked-out zones.

• Perhaps the group most vulnerable to the impact of the storm were the thousands of homeless people sleeping on the streets, in the subway system, and in other public spaces. Again, DHS and non-profit outreach teams made valiant efforts to find vulnerable street homeless people, particularly in the evacuation zones. But there is no question that many homeless New Yorkers literally weathered the storm and its aftermath outdoors and without shelter.

• Adding to the mounting crisis, yesterday Governor Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg and other government officials announced that thousands of New Yorkers displaced by the storm – including public housing tenants in developments that suffered severe damage to heating and electrical systems – will be in need of short- and long-term housing assistance — see the New York Times news report here. While there are still many questions about the extent of the need, there is no doubt that substantial help from the Federal government, as well as the State and City, will be required to avert a long-term housing crisis.

We will continue to provide updates in the days and weeks ahead, as well as updated information about where people recovering from the storm can go to get help.

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