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Long Island's homeless face a double whammy with cold, COVID

Footprints in the snow. Long Island's homeless population

Footprints in the snow. Long Island's homeless population is facing the challenges of multiple snowstorms, significant cold temperatures and a pandemic that have made their lives more difficult. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Bone-chilling cold swept in wintertime at the end of last year, and a homeless man living on the street froze to death on Long Island’s Gold Coast.

The man, 50, was found alone near Middle Neck Road, Great Neck’s business district, according to Greta Guarton, executive director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit that oversees the Island region’s homelessness strategy.

"This is someone who grew up in Great Neck, and he froze to death. He was unsheltered in Great Neck," she said, adding: "When you say it could be anybody and people that we know — yeah, nobody thinks of people who come from Great Neck freezing to death on the street."

Across the United States, about 700 such people die every year from hypothermia, according to a 2010 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

A frigid winter — this week brought the season’s fifth major storm so far — can prove especially punishing for a homeless person living outside.

So, Guarton said, when the temperature or the windchill dips to 32 degrees or below, outreach workers fan out across Long Island — Hempstead, the East End, Brentwood, Central Islip, Patchogue, and other locales where the homeless tend to congregate: The woods. In alleys. At train stations. Shopping centers. Near dumpsters.

The goal: Coax homeless people to go stay at a shelter. Some say yes, according to Guarton, and accept a van ride — this year, socially distant and masked — to one of the Island’s 200 or so homeless shelters. But, for various reasons, some say no — they don’t want to give up a shopping cart full of possessions, they recoil at real or perceived shelter conditions. And this year, there’s also the fear of COVID-19.

But staying outside carries risks, too. In 2008, three homeless men were found dead outside over a week, including one in West Hempstead who had spoken in a TV interview about braving the cold rather than staying in a public shelter, and another was found "frozen solid" in a wooded area near Hicksville off the Wantagh State Parkway, according to Newsday. In 2011, a homeless man behind a Lawrence strip mall burned to death after the cooking cans he lit to stay warm set his body aflame. He had been cleaning himself with an alcohol-based, and flammable, wash.

To cope with the cold, sometimes "people will try to cluster a little bit to stay warmer, and that's dangerous now," Guarton said.

So, she said, workers offer those who opt to stay outdoors additional coats, extra blankets, sleeping bags and tents, to keep warm on their own and avoid using one another's body heat during the pandemic.

Long Island has about 3,800 homeless people, including about 1,650 children, according to a count from early 2020. Of those 3,800 people, 54 adults are "unsheltered" — sleeping outside or in a place unfit for habitation. The unsheltered number is certainly an undercount, Guarton said, because it’s based on an in-person census taken on a single day. And in a sprawling suburban place like Long Island, finding much of the population is an impossible task, particularly when the homeless, including immigrants in the United States illegally, are wary of cooperating with authorities.

During the pandemic, homeless shelters have reduced capacity due to the need for social distancing, said Jordan Carmon, a spokesman for Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, and so during the winter the county has expanded the use of rented motel rooms. The county has also opened three of its 10 warming centers.

No one is forced inside, but a Nassau Homeless Intervention Team and patrol cops are tasked with keeping a lookout for those outside, he said.

Normally, homeless shelters won’t accept anyone who isn’t an American citizen, who can stay elsewhere or has assets or other resources, Guarton said. But a 2016 state order suspends these and other rules restricting who’s allowed in a shelter, once the weather reaches 32 degrees or below.

Nassau had already waived those requirements since the beginning of the pandemic, Carmon said.

A spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone didn’t return a message seeking comment. But Guarton said Suffolk has waived those rules for the entirety of this winter season, and is letting people stay regardless:

"When things start to get warmer, I imagine that they will ask people to leave, but right now they're not like, ‘Oh, it’s 33 degrees, you gotta go now.' They're not doing that now."

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