Winter is seven weeks away, but Baltimore's "winter plan" is right on time.
As temperatures dropped to a record low of 26 degrees this morning at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and 30 degrees in Baltimore, the city's seasonal plan for housing additional homeless people was up and running, providing an extra 334 beds in emergency and transitional shelters citywide.
Tonight, the temperature is again expected to plummet below freezing, according to National Weather Service forecaster Bill Miller.
The plan's timing was so uncanny that it seemed as if the city had better long-range weather forecasts than local television stations. But the city's preparations actually resulted from learning the hard way that cold weather has no respect for the calendar.
"We started the winter plan last year on Nov. 15 and there was one day -- Nov. 10, or 9 or 8 -- that the temperatures dropped," said Joanne Selinske, of the city's department of Homeless Services. "As it turned out, we made a conscious choice to start early this year."
At Midtown Churches Community Association, which operates an additional two shelters during the winter, director Esther Reaves said the extra bed space actually makes winter better than spring and summer, when more people are turned away.
"We've got bed space," she said. "What we need are towels, so everyone can take a shower."
During the warm-weather months in Baltimore, there are more than 50 sites offering about 1,200 emergency or transitional beds for the city's homeless, estimated at up to 2,400 men, women and children on any given night.
Under the winter plan, there are 61 shelters, and some year-round shelters provide additional beds.
This year, for the first time, there is a permanent, year-round shelter in South Baltimore, providing 49 beds at West and Leadenhall streets. The neighborhood, increasingly inundated with homeless men, initially had resisted efforts to set up a permanent shelter.
Meanwhile, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke plans this week to meet with the Homeless Union and choose a site for a 24-hour city shelter. Last year, the city provided a similar shelter, but only under extreme weather conditions.
"That would be a big step up," said Roberta Maguire, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a legal service whose workload also increases during the winter, as more shelter beds yield more clients.
Other aspects of the winter plan, now in its fifth year, include:
* The "street card," which lists available services. The city printed 40,000 cards this year, twice as many as last year. It will distribute them through soup kitchens, city schools, the Department of Social Services and Health Care for the Homeless Inc.
* The homeless shuttle, a bus provided by the Mass Transit Administration and staffed by the Salvation Army. The bus takes clients to nine shelters, including the central city, South Baltimore and northwest Baltimore facilities. Homeless people do not have to use the shuttle, however, to stay at these shelters.
* Mobile soup kitchens. The Salvation Army will be out every night, while the Heritage Outreach People Encounter will send a vehicle out Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
* Temporary suspension of evictions during "severe cold weather."
Since the U.S. Census attempted to tally the city's homeless in March 1990, there has been little new information about the number of homeless here, Selinske said. However, the Census indicated that for every three people housed in shelters, one person is on the street.
Given the state's ailing economy and the recent cut in welfare grants to single adults, the city is bracing for perhaps the heaviest demand ever this winter, Selinske said.
The weather is, as always, the wild card in the city's preparations.
"We hope it's not a harsh winter, but we're ready for it," she said.