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LI officials work to get homeless out of bitter cold

Timothy Bryant, 56, a well-known homeless man in

Timothy Bryant, 56, a well-known homeless man in New Cassel, was found dead Dec. 21 at this abandoned school yard on Grand Street, police said. His apparent death from exposure to the cold has brought attention to winter shelters and other outreach programs on Long Island, as well as the rise in recession-related homelessness. (Dec. 22, 2009) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

With snow piled high on the ground Sunday, JoAnne Collins' cell phone lit up. Suffolk Police officers were calling with reports of freezing homeless men and women, and wanted to know what to do.

"I told them how to talk somebody into a shelter," said Collins, director of homeless services for the nonprofit Huntington-based Family Service League. "In the winter, it's more urgent. We get concerned about someone freezing to death."

Last weekend's bitterly cold weather and immense snowfall made bringing the homeless inside much more important but also harder than ever, homeless advocates and county officials said.

In some cases, that work fell to police officers because most of Suffolk's taxi companies - which the county normally uses to ferry the homeless to shelters - were not operating during the storm Saturday night and early Sunday, said Gregory Blass, commissioner of the Suffolk Department of Social Services.

Suffolk's emergency shelter population reflected the difficulties of bringing the homeless inside: The number of emergency beds used for single adults seeking help fell to 211 last weekend, down from 269 the weekend before, when there was no snow.

No one was left to freeze because of transportation problems, said Ed Hernandez, Suffolk's deputy social services commissioner. But some seeking alternative shelter locations were turned away.

"If somebody called from their sister-in-law's house, we told them to stay there," Hernandez said. "People hunkered down."

Monday morning provided a grim reminder of winter's dangers when Timothy Bryant, 56, a homeless man known to many in New Cassel, was found dead in an abandoned school parking lot on Grand Street, Nassau police said. The cause of death was pending Tuesday, but police said he appeared to die from exposure to the cold.

"It's exactly the kind of tragedy we try to avoid," said Connie Lassandro, director of Nassau's Office of Housing and Homeless Services.

In Nassau, people seeking emergency shelter went up last weekend, from 22 to about 30. Police, though they can't force homeless men and women into shelters, are trained to give them the county's emergency shelter number, 866-WARM-BED, said Det. Sgt. James Watson, who is investigating Bryant's death.

A team of Nassau social services and mental health workers and police has stepped up efforts to reach the homeless since the weather turned cold this month. They look for them nearly every day in parking lots, wooded areas lining parkways and behind shopping centers.

"I have seven bags of coats and I've been giving them out," said Patricia Rose, a social services caseworker on the team. "I'm there so they know there's someone in the department they can trust."

Those who live on the street represent a small portion of the homeless, the majority of whom are families with children, county officials said. But the street homeless population appears to be increasing: 304 were counted by the Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless on Long Island in January, compared with 158 in 2007.

The coalition is planning another count of the homeless in January, said executive director Greta Guarton. She said unemployment and home foreclosures have sparked a recent surge in calls to her office and the cold weather doesn't help.

"It's people saying they have no place to sleep," she said.

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