Getting the Homeless Off the Cold Streets

Thursday, January 07, 2010

As freezing temperatures continue this week, the city is doubling its efforts to find homeless New Yorkers sleeping on the street. Outreach workers are instructed to regularly monitor people who they know commonly sleep in certain locations. Rolando Williams from the non-profit Common Ground starts his shift at midnight and says by then people are hard to find.

"Our day team will see them now, and then they will give us the names, and we'll put the name on the list for the night. However, when it comes nightfall, they go underground, they may go inside abandoned buildings. They may go into the shelter system," says Williams.

Williams' job is to search for the homeless in neighborhoods such as East New York, Brownsville, and Flatbush, Brooklyn. Every night, he says, he runs into an elderly woman named Geraldine who wraps herself in a sleeping bag and blankets and sleeps on the sidewalk in downtown Brooklyn.

"I always ask her if she's warm enough, if she's alright, does she want to go inside. We have a bed waiting for you," Williams says. "Her response is always, 'Go find somebody that really needs the help. I don't need the help.'"

Williams says he responds to up to ten 311 calls a night. Sometimes the calls are from the homeless themselves, other times from people in the community. Williams says he usually responds within 15 minutes of receiving a call, but often the person is already gone when he arrives.

Workers are trained to identify frostbite and hypothermia and the city says no one is involuntary removed from the street unless there's serious concern about their safety. If people want to know the outcome of their 311 call they can request that an outreach worker contact them.

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