City teams work to get homeless off frigid streets and into warm shelters

Despite cold, crews face uphill battle persuading some to sleep indoors

January 24, 2003|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

About 6 p.m. yesterday when the temperature registered 16 degrees outside -- 1 degree with the wind chill factored in -- John Murray sat in his wheelchair at McDonald's in downtown Baltimore drinking soda with lots of ice.

He was polite to the men from Downtown Partnership who tried, in vain, to persuade him to go to a shelter before the restaurant closed later.

"I'd rather stay on the streets," Murray, 39, said through sips of soda. "This ain't the first winter I've been out on the streets. I stayed near the courthouse last night."

Even so, Murray, homeless since the Murphy Homes public housing complex in West Baltimore was demolished in 1999, applauded the efforts of Downtown Partnership employees who venture out every day it is cold.

Last night's temperature was expected to dip to near 10, with a wind chill of zero to 10 below, said Andy Woodcock, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington branch. Scattered snow flurries were also expected, he said.

In those conditions, it is likely that someone could die from hypothermia, said City Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson.

"Your body tries to compensate, to create warmth," Beilenson said. "Once that doesn't work, if you're not wearing enough clothing, or no matter how much clothing you have on, your appendages start shutting down.

"Blood flow is conserved to the vital organs, your heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and brain. There's less blood flow to the hands and feet. If those areas are exposed, frostbite can occur, literally within minutes."

Through Wednesday night, at its Pennsylvania Avenue facility, the city had provided emergency overnight shelter to 1,414 people during its 14 "Code Blue" days, Beilenson said. The Code Blue designation is based on such factors as temperature, wind chill and precipitation.

But despite the abnormal temperatures -- last night was the city's coldest this winter -- some homeless people choose to spend the night on city streets rather than eat hot food and sleep in warm beds.

Murray said he would rather stay outside and panhandle outside downtown bars than deal with the "nonsense" in shelters. He also said if he earned enough money he would go to a hotel on North Avenue about 2:30 a.m.

Last night, Downtown Partnership employees Bertina Silver, Ronald Robinson and Shawn Elliott stopped their van in the 100 block of Liberty St., looking for a homeless man named Darnell who frequents the area. Eventually they spotted Darnell, wrapped in a blanket and standing at Calvert and Baltimore streets. When Elliott caught up to him on foot, Darnell refused assistance.

Silver said if workers think a homeless person is incapable of making a sound decision, police are called.

At the same McDonald's where Murray refused help, Lonnie Harris, 32, agreed to take a van to the emergency shelter on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"That's nice," McDonald's employee Tiasha Walker, 18, said of city efforts to help the homeless people, "because it's really cold outside, and cardboard is not going to help."

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