Bloomberg: "Nobody's sleeping on the streets" in New York City

But the recently ended "code blue" policy has left more homeless families than ever sleeping outside in the cold

Published February 20, 2013 2:03PM (EST)

  (AP/Seth Wenig)
(AP/Seth Wenig)

When asked Tuesday about allegations that the New York City shelter system is turning families away despite dangerously cold temperatures, Mayor Michael Bloomberg replied, defiantly: "Nobody's sleeping on the streets."

The mayor's flippant comment has outraged homeless advocates. (And everyone with commonsense.)

By the city's own admission, there were 3,200 people sleeping on the streets in January 2012, but advocates suggest that there is no 100 percent accurate measurement of the city's unsheltered homeless and that the number is actually significantly higher.

And if you need further proof that families are sleeping on the street, New Yorkers say, then just look around.

"If you ride the subway, you know people are living on the street," one man told NY1. "And people are living underneath the subway," he added.

The Bloomberg administration and the city's Department of Homeless Services have long been targets of criticism over a failure to provide adequate affordable housing and for shelter policies that make it difficult for those who need help to get it. As recently as last week, a state appellate court ruled for the City Council in its challenge to a Bloomberg administration policy that required single adults to prove they had no other alternatives when seeking help from a homeless shelter for the night.

In the past, when temperatures dropped below the freezing mark, the city enacted a "code blue" that temporarily relaxed the restrictive shelter policies that prevent so many homeless families and singles from getting a bed. But that policy ended last winter -- without the administration telling anyone.

When asked for comment, Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio sent the New York Daily News a statement that explained the new policy. She said that while all families applying for shelter for the first time are given a bed, returning families have to meet "city criteria." Adding, "For reapplications, we take into account weather conditions, and we work to ensure that applicants who have alternate living situations do not take up beds that are needed by those who truly have no recourse."

One such family was nearly turned away on a frigid January night after being told that -- because they had stayed in the same facility back in 2008 -- they were considered "reapplicants" and should try to stay with relatives instead.

As reported by the Daily News:

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 Clarkes were considered reapplicants when they showed up at the center Jan. 22. They stayed in shelter for 10 days in 2008 after being thrown out of his mother-in-law’s Suffolk County home, Junior Clarke said. The family had returned to the center because they were kicked out of a rented room after falling behind on rent, Clarke said. He lost his job as an EMT in December.

At PATH, shelter workers told him to go back to his mother-in-law’s house. Clarke told them the family wasn’t welcome.

The Clarkes refused to leave, instead calling the Legal Aid Society who convinced intake workers to give the family a place to stay for the night. But without "code blue" on the books, homeless singles and families stand a much greater risk of being turned away -- and sleeping on the below-freezing streets.

The change in policy has city lawmakers concerned as well. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilwoman Annabel Palma (D-Bronx) sent a letter to Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond criticizing the change and expressing concern about the practice of denying families shelter for the night in such extreme weather. 

After the mayor's remarks, his office went into serious damage control mode, issuing an email release of transcripts from past interviews in which the mayor has admitted that there are, actually, people living and sleeping on the streets each day.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Affordable Housing Families Homelessness Mayor Bloomberg New York New York City