Recent extremely low temperatures has made the fate of the homeless even more chronic than normal — nor is there likely to be any abatement soon, with temperatures set to remain at most in the mid-20s Fahrenheit.
On Monday, the volunteers gathered as usual to make sandwiches and pack socks, hats and gloves for the homeless at the Aisling Irish community center in Yonkers.
Then they headed for various drop-off points around Manhattan. This time it was Penn Station and Madison Square Garden — the corner of 34th Street and Eighth Avenue.
“Can you imagine how cold it is for them?” said Mary Quinn, a Dubliner who has volunteered for the food run for several years.
It wasn’t hard to imagine: the offshore wind sliced up the avenue bringing temperatures to as low as 10 degrees. A group of homeless men and women waited, most shivering uncontrollably, but glad to see the volunteers, greeting many of them by name with big smiles, even in this cold.
Warm clothes were no protection: this was a cold that cut through every layer and chilled to the bone.
“Tonight is very small,” said Quinn, who has seen the need grow from an average of 350 homeless people per night in fair weather to more than 500 in the last few years.
The extreme cold has driven many homeless people into shelters. The police and city services have also been taking people off the streets and into shelters in response to the freeze.
Last Thursday night, typically cold, there were 8,731 people citywide who used city shelters. That figure is 300 people above average for this time of year. Many more homeless still refuse to go to shelters even in this weather — constantly homeless people say that shelters are where they are robbed or beaten up by other homeless people: shelters are not safe enough.
Two men clutched bags of food and asked for a second hot chocolate, shivering all the while. They had been in New York 18 years, one of them said, explaining in poor English. They had emigrated from Punjab in India — “things didn’t work out,” he said. They asked, “Do you know where we could stay tonight?”
“Come here, you here, I’ll zip you up,” volunteer Liz Harte called to another homeless man. He stopped in his tracks and beamed as she helped him with the zipper of his tattered anorak.
Another man clutched his bag of food against his chest, and stared wildly around him. He had spilled some liquid on his sweater and it had frozen there. Most of the homeless thanked the volunteers over and over again.
“So many of them say the same thing,” said Quinn. “They say, it’s not the food, although that is important, so much as the conversation, a touch of human warmth.”
The city does not approve of the work of such small volunteer groups, Quinn added.
“The city doesn’t want to know about small groups,” she said. “They say we’re enabling the homeless to stay on the streets by feeding them.” She shrugged. “It was 5 degrees when we were coming down tonight [from Yonkers].”
Break for the Border, the Irish-owned taxicab company in Yonkers, provides the volunteers with a van for transport on their food runs. For that, Quinn said, the group is deeply grateful, but she appealed for further help from the public.
“If anyone has an SUV or a van that they could lend or drive in addition, it would be an amazing help,” she said.
The group has its roots in the visit of the late Cardinal Thomas O’Fiach to the Bronx in 1990.
O’Fiach spoke to many of the young Irish immigrants in the area at the time and asked them if they would consider doing something to give back to the city that had provided them with such great opportunities.
The then Irish chaplain at the Aisling Center, Fr. Joseph Delany organized a meeting and it was decided that the group could help the homeless.
They gather at the center to make sandwiches and cookies, which they distribute to the hungry along with soup and hot chocolate in the winter, and juice and cold drinks in the summer.
The group has grown steadily in numbers and it has taken in several new locations — Fifth Avenue in the 50s, Herald Square and Madison Square Park, where many homeless live in cardboard boxes.
The volunteers also pay for the gloves, hats and scarves that they are able to hand out to the neediest at these points.
“We have met young Irish people here,” Quinn said. “There are definitely young Irish living rough in the city as well.”
Not all of the people they help are utterly destitute and on the streets.
“We have what are called working poor here,” Quinn said. “They’re not living on the streets, but they are on the breadline, barely getting by. They may have a place to sleep in at night, but they need help.”