ITHACA, N.Y.—New York State’s “Code Blue” policy is set to go into effect tonight as temperatures dip near 20 degrees Fahrenheit. People who are sleeping outside, in their cars or who otherwise do not have heating can get a motel room or bed in the homeless shelter for the night.
The policy, which went into effect in 2015, requires counties to provide shelter to anyone who needs it anytime the temperature or wind-chill dips below 32 F between October and April. The National Weather Service expects low temperatures to hit 26 F tonight.
Regardless of housing status, citizenship, sobriety or income, anyone can get shelter by calling the human services hotline for Tompkins and Cortland counties at 2-1-1, Ithaca’s homeless shelter (607-354-8990) or police dispatch (607-272-3245). During business hours, people can text their zip code to TXT-211 (898-211) to get a response that way.
Transportation may be available through outreach organizations like Second Wind or Opportunities Alternatives and Resources (OAR). People are able to bring some of their belongings. More info is available here.
Hypothermia and other cold-related health risks can affect everyone at temperatures below 32 F, but children, older adults, immunocompromised individuals and people who use certain substances or medications may be even more susceptible.
During warmer weather, unhoused individuals must apply and meet a host of other requirements before they can get shelter assistance from New York State. Without shelter assistance, unhoused people may have to pay out of pocket to stay in the homeless shelter.
Tammy Baker, Tompkins County’s Homeless Services Coordinator, said on one night during last year’s “Code Blue” season, 240 people were able to receive shelter, nearly four times the nightly average during the rest of the year.
Richard Rivera, an outreach worker and Cornell researcher, said he expects to be working late this evening, picking people up and driving them to the St. John’s shelter downtown or to temporary motel rooms to wait out the freezing weather.
“I won’t be drinking any beer tonight,” Rivera joked. “If someone calls, I’ll be over there [to] drive them to where they need to go. It is just the humane thing to do.”
Rivera said that while anyone can get shelter during Code Blue, people need to go through the regular shelter process if they wish to remain sheltered once the sun comes up and temperatures rise above freezing.
Many formerly unhoused people often host couch surfers on cold nights like Wednesday, Rivera said. Even during Code Blue, the shelter is a last resort, he said.
Rivera said while he expects to see some familiar faces tonight, he worries about newcomers this year.
Upstate towns have seen an influx of migrants, some of whom may have been bussed up to New York from states like Texas and Florida. Between potential language barriers and a lack of documentation, Rivera said the local outreach system can be doubly hard to navigate.
Update: A previous version of this story directed people to call or text 2-1-1. To gain help via text, users must text their zip code to 898-211. The text line is only manned during business hours.