Code Blue site proves haven for homeless

Bitter cold forces city to open emergency shelter for first time this winter

January 08, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The street is no place for a 24-year-old single mother and her four daughters - especially with below-freezing temperatures.

But that is the situation Melissa Ray found herself in last night after she and her children were forced to leave her friend's East Baltimore apartment because of a landlord's threat of eviction.

Ray said she has been in Baltimore for two weeks since fleeing South Carolina on a Greyhound bus to escape an abusive boyfriend. When her housing fell through yesterday, she was forced to find a place to stay, a search that led her to the city's Code Blue emergency shelter at 1400 E. Federal St. last night.

Frigid temperatures this week forced the city Health Department to activate its emergency homeless shelter, called Code Blue, for the first time this winter on Tuesday, attracting nearly 200 people over the past two nights. City officials expected the shelter to open again tonight.

A "code blue" is declared on mornings when forecasts for the evening predict temperatures below 20 degrees, or 25 degrees with precipitation. The city records an average of 12 to 15 such nights each winter.

After health officials declare a "code blue," the shelter is opened from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. A yellow school bus picks up the homeless at four locations through the night where other services are available: Oasis Station at 220 N. Gay St.; Health Care for the Homeless at 111 Park Ave.; My Sister's Place at 123 W. Mulberry St.; and the Baltimore City Department of Social Services office at 2000 N. Broadway.

The homeless are then taken to the shelter where they stay until 8 a.m., when they are taken back to each of those locations.

"It breaks your heart that there are families with children out in the cold," said the Rev. Robert C. Burley Sr., president of the Oliver Community Association, which had initially opposed the shelter being located at its community center. "We're glad to lend this assistance to the homeless."

The second-floor Federal Street facility housed 92 people Tuesday evening - 79 males, 10 females and three children younger than age 10. The city did not know the children's gender. Last night they expected even more, said Melisa Lindamood, a Health Department official who runs Code Blue.

During last year's exceptionally cold winter, the shelter opened 34 nights and served 3,751 people. Fewer people froze to death in Baltimore last winter - four - than in any winter of the past decade, health officials have said, an accomplishment they partly credited to Code Blue.

Last night, temperatures were forecast in the low teens with high winds.

The shelter contains 103 cots but can provide an emergency supply of 100 more, Lindamood said.

In addition to three police officers to maintain order and safety, the shelter offers employment, mental health and substance abuse counseling and nurses. Showers, a cafeteria and a lounge with a television are available.

Rooms are separated by gender, and women with children sleep in their own rooms.

Last night, local chef Benny Gordon prepared green beans, rice, corn and other food donated by Maryland Food Bank's Second Helpings, which collects leftovers from area restaurants. Gordon stretches the food to serve as many people as he can.

Ray, a construction worker in South Carolina, said she was thankful for the shelter but she worried about someone stealing her belongings, which were stuffed into three duffel bags.

"This is my first time being homeless," said Ray, as her daughters, ages 1 through 9, huddled around her legs. "All you can do is pray."

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