Homeless Find Refuge Underground Amid Winter Storm Toby

On the first official day of Spring, thousands of New Yorkers heeded city warnings to stay home and beat the snow as Winter Storm Toby thrashed its way through the northeast. By Wednesday afternoon, schools had closed, service at the Port Authority Bus Terminal had been suspended, and many people headed home before the bulk of the snowstorm pummeled the city. 

Even New York City’s busiest train stations, normally teeming with frantic commuters, were far emptier than usual, after Mayor Bill de Blasio urged employers to send their staff home early to dodge the evening rush hour.

While everyone else hurried home, some of the city’s most overlooked residents hunkered down in one place many others expressly avoided: Grand Central Station.

“With this weather like this, we had to come here. We haven’t been here in a while,” said Eric Sean Richardson, a 49-year-old homeless man who calls himself the “Street Priest.”

Richardson and his wife Aliyyah sat in the dining hall of Grand Central Terminal, sharing a sandwich they bought with money solicited from a passerby. The two spend most of their days floating around midtown between Penn Station, Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center, before finding refuge on an “A” train for sleep. But with the Nor’easter sweeping across the city, they chose to make a rare return to one of the most spacious underground locations they could find.

Eric Richardson and his wife share a meal in the lower dining hall of Grand Central Terminal.

“I’m used to storms and stuff like that – rain, sleet and snow,” Richardson said. “So when the weather gets bad, I’m indoors.”

They weren’t the only homeless people taking advantage of the terminal’s seating, warmth and proximity to food. Other corners of the dining hall were filled with slumped heads and packed bags. Meanwhile, the halls were noticeably less busy with commuters than usual.

“It’ll usually be more people here. Especially with lunchtime, it’s usually a lot more people,” Richardson said between bites.

By late Wednesday evening, very little snow had stuck outside Grand Central, but other parts of the city saw much more accumulation. By 9 p.m., more than 8 inches of snow had been reported in parts of Queens and Brooklyn, according to The Weather Channel.

But for Richardson and many other homeless people inside the station, even those numbers were unimpressive – especially compared to the historic Nor’easter in January 2016 that dumped 2-3 feet of snow across the region. “Everything had to be shut down, trains and everything. Stores. Everybody was closed,” he recalled.

Snow accumulation in Harlem by 9 p.m. on Wednesday

Although the homeless are often considered the most vulnerable population to winter weather, many who endured Wednesday’s storm considered themselves uniquely prepared to withstand the conditions.

“This is nothing!” said Rosemarie Sims, 62, pushing around her cart of belongings through Grand Central’s dining hall. “In general, all homeless people know how to deal with the snow. If you’re cooked up in the apartment, your body doesn’t adapt as quickly. But we have no other means, so we readjust.”

Sims spent three years living in a shelter in the Upper East Side until it closed down in 2008 due to the city’s budgetary and policy changes. But rather than relocate to another shelter and endure what she called a culture of theft, violence and harassment, she chose to live and sleep on the streets near Grand Central. The snow storm, she said, will not impede her usual sleeping habits.

“I’ll stay outside because it’s not that cold, and the snow is not sticking. Weather is getting milder and milder each year,” Sims said. “As the years go by, for some reason we don’t have much of a winter.”

Both Eric Richardson and his wife agreed. After finishing their sandwiches, they split up in the hopes of collecting change for their next meal.

Business as usual.