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City’s outreach brings boro’s homeless out of cold

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A city agency scoured the borough earlier this week for homeless residents on the street who were in danger due to the frigid temperatures.

The search was part of an alert called Code Blue, which goes into effect every time the temperature drops below 32 degrees. When that happens, the city Department of Homeless Services sends out street outreach teams to engage with the homeless and attempt to coax them into shelters, according to a department official.

“As part of the Code Blue process, we double the number of outreach teams that are out overnight,” said Seth Diamond, commissioner of the department. “They are looking for people who need help and should be in a warm place.”

The outreach teams work with Emergency Medical Services and police in order to prevent hypothermia and frostbite in the homeless individuals, according to Diamond.

But convincing a person who lives on the streets to come into a shelter can be a surprisingly daunting task.

“People on the street are reluctant to give up that life,” Diamond said.

And even freezing temperatures are not always enough of a motivation.

“It may be somewhat easier,” Diamond said. “But people on the streets often have mental health and other issues. The same judgment that keeps them on the street may interfere with the decisions that they make.”

As far as Queens goes, there is a much smaller homeless population than in Brooklyn or Manhattan.

“There are fewer people on the street in Queens,” Diamond said. “And it is a more spread-out borough.”

But the outreach teams know exactly where to find people who might be in trouble.

“They’re dedicated to Queens and they develop expertise,” Diamond said. “They know what areas are more likely to have people.”

And often they know the people personally and have gained their trust.

“They really develop a relationship with the individuals,” Diamond said. “Then we work with them to make better choices.”

This is the 42nd Code Blue that has been called since the winter season began´╗┐. So far there have been no major medical emergencies.

“We haven’t had any tragedies, fortunately,” Diamond said. “You have to keep working at it.”

But homeless residents had also not experienced the low temperatures that froze the city early in the week.

Because the outreach teams cannot be everywhere at once. Diamond encouraged residents to call 311 if they see someone who appears to need help.

“With that one call you could save somebody’s life,” he said.

In addition to outreach, homeless residents can walk into any shelter throughout the borough.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Updated 10:49 am, October 12, 2011
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