As temperatures plunge, city shelters' ranks climb

Housing for homeless pushed to the limits during latest cold spell

January 23, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. and Laurie Willis | Walter F. Roche Jr. and Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's homeless shelters are being taxed to the limit as city officials try to help men and women off the frigid city streets, a problem that has already caused one shelter to become so crowded that it is running 50 percent over capacity.

"It's brutally cold," City Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson said yesterday, noting that the city has provided emergency overnight shelter to 1,243 homeless persons in a dozen "Code Blue" days this winter.

"Most places are at capacity," said Alex Boston, director of the Office of Homeless Services in the city Department of Housing and Community Development.

In the past few days, more than 150 homeless people a night have crowded into the city's emergency overflow shelter at 1901 Pennsylvania Ave. The facility normally houses about 100 men and women, who sleep on cots.

Across town in the 2200 block of Greenmount Ave., about 125 men continue to use a privately run shelter though its heating system hasn't been working for about two weeks.

The shelter has plenty of hot food, tea and coffee, officials say, but no heat.

Karen Powell, who oversees a city team that searches streets at night for the homeless, said the freezing temperatures have persuaded some of the most resistant among them to seek shelter.

"We've had our hands full," Powell said. "Even some of the chronic homeless are a little more willing to come in. Fortunately we've had a place to take them."

Data provided by Boston show that 19 shelters across the city have been filled to near capacity and beyond for the past three days. Those facilities are in addition to the Pennsylvania Avenue site. The nightly totals for the 19 facilities range from 810 to 852 occupants.

Tuesday night was the 13th Code Blue day of the season, and Boston and Beilenson predicted today will fall into the same icy category.

"They are saying it will be the coldest night of the year," Beilenson said.

The Code Blue designation, based on such factors as ambient temperature, wind chill and precipitation, is a newly established city system designed to marshal forces that could help prevent cold-related death and injuries. Beilenson said it was based on a method first used in Philadelphia.

Though there was one city death from exposure in mid-October, the health commissioner said none have been recorded since the first Code Blue day Dec. 3.

Considering that eight people died last year when the weather was much milder, he said the new system appears to be a success.

Mayor Martin O'Malley paid a visit last night to the Pennsylvania Avenue shelter, arriving about 6 p.m. to assess the situation and meet with several homeless people.

"The program was set up so we won't have people in the city of Baltimore freezing to death," O'Malley said.

Jeff Singer of Healthcare for the Homeless, a nonprofit agency set up to provide medical care to the homeless, said that while there have not been any deaths, the cold has brought on health problems. One man who has suffered frostbite is expected to lose part of his foot.

The agency has been crowded with homeless people, seeking daytime shelter and health care, he said.

"We're very concerned from a medical perspective," Singer said.

Beilenson said a recently completed survey of those who stayed at the Pennsylvania Avenue shelter showed that about half had come to the facility on their own, some walking as many as 20 blocks. He said the emergency shelter has proven to be "extremely popular."

One of the surprising statistics, he said, was that 20 percent of those showing up at the emergency shelter reported that they would be going to work the next morning.

Nonetheless, he said, 81 percent of those at the facility said they had been homeless for more than a month.

At another shelter, I Can Inc. on Greenmount Avenue, warm food is aplenty. Heat is not.

The "men's only" shelter has been nearly as frigid as the temperature outside since its boiler broke a few weeks ago, said the Rev. Lonnie Davis Sr., executive director.

Homeless advocates spent several days trying to help secure funds for a new boiler, and last night city officials announced they were donating the necessary money to provide a "temporary" solution to the problem.

"Hopefully tomorrow they can have that temporary heating in place," Nigel Allen, development director at I Can Inc., said yesterday. "It will be a portable system that will connect to the radiators, and heat will be piped in from the outside."

The city assistance is badly needed.

Throughout the building, bundled-up men sip on hot tea and crowd around electric heaters to stay warm. As they talk, their breath can be seen.

I Can Inc. operates two other men's shelters in Baltimore, in the 200 block of N. Gay St. and the 700 block of N. Eutaw St.

Davis said he expects all of the facilities to be crowded as long as temperatures remain low.

"Cold weather always increases the amount of people who show up at shelters," he said.

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