02/08/2013 04:15 pm ET

New York Homeless Prepare For Nemo With Their Own Shelter Plans

NEW YORK -- Ronald Miller has a plan.

Miller, 56, hasn’t had a reliable place to sleep in eight years. Yet with a nor'easter that the storm enthusiasts at the Weather Channel have informally dubbed “Nemo” heading for the East Coast, Miller still isn’t going to one of New York City’s shelters.

He has a MetroCard, the key to a subway ride anywhere the train will take him. During the winter, Miller tries to keep the card loaded with at least $1 at all times so that when the temperature falls, he can head underground and, with a bit of luck and a few donations, hop on a subway. Once Miller is aboard a train, he keeps the MetroCard hidden somewhere on his person -- he won’t say where -- so that it can’t be stolen while he sleeps.

“It’s like a moving, warm hotel that you have to share,” Miller said about his plan to spend the night riding the 4, 5 and 6 trains. A subway ride cost $2.25. “All I need now is a dollar.”

On Friday, Miller sat near the entrance to the Bowling Green subway stop, just steps from Wall Street’s famous bronze “Charging Bull” sculpture and the city’s Department of Homeless Services, hoping that the blowing rain and sleet might persuade a few passers-by to drop a donation into his cup. The cup sits on the ground next to a sign that reads simply, “It’s Cold. Please Help.”

The Department of Homeless Services did not respond by publication to requests for information about how the agency is preparing for the storm or the likely increase in demand for temporary shelter this weekend. Staff at the building’s front desk said the agency could not provide information without an appointment.

New York operates shelters around the city. Some house men or women only. Others take in families. The Coalition for the Homeless, a New York nonprofit organization, estimates that each year, more than 110,000 different homeless New Yorkers, including 40,000 children, spend at least one night in a municipal shelter. About 48,700 people sleep in one of these facilities each night, and an estimated 5,000 more find places to sleep in shelters run by nonprofits, in city parks and in other public spaces, the coalition estimates.

Miller doesn’t want to be one of them.

“They try -- they have a lot of rules -- I think they really do,” said Miller, about the staff who run the city’s shelters. “But no matter how many rules you have, if there’s a collection of humanity in one building it’s going to be loud. It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s just not something I can handle tonight.”

Miller, who is wearing a waist-length wool coat that has lost all its buttons, a stocking cap topped by a wool beanie, sweat pants, and slippers with damp, once-white socks, said that he has been particularly sensitive to loud noise and commotion since he was shot in the stomach seven years ago. But if you pick the right car, with heat and not too many people, riding a subway all night can actually be sort of soothing, he said.

“At night, most people mind their [own] business down there,” Miller said.

A few miles north, at the city’s East 32nd Street drop-in shelter between Park and Lexington avenues, the staff won’t allow a reporter past the front-door security checkpoint. But, as Miller predicted, there are a fair number of voices audible from inside.

Signs on the wall lay out some of the shelter’s rules: During mealtime and group activities, the showers are closed. Any belongings left outside a locker and unattended will be confiscated by the shelter staff. No plastic bags of any kind are allowed inside.

Dorian Gill, 43, is thinking of going to a shelter. Like Miller, she has a plan for big snow events, she said. She divides her snow days between Grand Central Station and the nearby public library. Each has its advantages, she said. In Grand Central, Gill can people-watch. Sometimes, someone is kind enough to buy her a sandwich or some soup. In the library, there’s the chance to find a quiet corner and read -- something that many New Yorkers will likely do this weekend.

“A chair in the library is about as close as I get to privacy,” said Gill, who said she has been homeless most of the last three years after losing her job as a security guard in a midtown Manhattan office building. “And it is warm. On a day like this, that’s a blessing. But I am going to have to find somewhere to sleep.”

Gill is wearing a puffy black water-proof winter coat and boots she got from a church on the Upper West Side last year. The coat has a hood, but the blowing rain and bits of hail were still finding their way into her hair before she decided to spend some time inside Grand Central Friday morning. And she has no gloves. Around 3 p.m., Gill thinks she will head to the New Providence Women’s Shelter on East 45th Street, between 2nd and 3rd avenues.

New Providence’s staff also refuse to let a reporter inside. The faint smell of disinfectant cleansing products fills the air near the security checkpoint. Some of the shelter's rules are also posted near the door: Everyone must sign in. Only one person may occupy the security checkpoint space at one time. The entire facility is monitored by audio and video surveillance equipment.

And just beyond the doorway, a group of women engage in a conversation so lively it’s hard to tell if they are joking or arguing.

A few blocks away, Romelo Martinez, 37, stood near the corner of 42nd Street and Third Avenue, considering his options. Martinez, who said he has been homeless off and on for four years, is dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt, a gray hooded sweatshirt and a brown knee-length raincoat. He pushes all of his belongings around the city in a shopping cart. Martinez doesn’t think the items he has in the cart will be enough to keep him alive tonight, so he's thinking of going to a buddy’s apartment in the Washington Heights neighborhood. But, like Miller, he needs a little money to get there.

In Martinez’s case, he’s down by about 75 cents but hopeful that a passer-by will deliver before the storm arrives.

“When it’s cold, I can handle it. But when it snows, you get wet and cold,” said Martinez, who is originally from the Dominican Republic. “I’m not built for that. But if my boy's girl[friend] is in the right mood, I think they'll help me out. They know what it's like.”