Homeless deaths spur shelter policy review

Advocates call for winterlong housing

December 06, 2005|By LYNN ANDERSON | LYNN ANDERSON,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore health officials are reconsidering their policy on when to open the city's winter weather shelter after the deaths of two homeless men who were discovered in an outdoor plaza downtown in subfreezing temperatures last weekend.

Although the state medical examiner has yet to rule on the official cause of death, it is suspected that Michael Clash, 51, and Dennis Waller, 49, died of hypothermia. Police said there was no evidence of foul play. The men were found Saturday morning after a night in which temperatures had fallen to 27 degrees in parts of the city.

"We don't know what the true cause of death was, but if there is something we need to change then we will do it," said acting city Health Commissioner Francine Childs. "We will be proactive and we will implement any changes quickly."

Advocates said the men might still be alive had the city activated its "Code Blue" winter weather shelter. The facility opened last night for the first time this winter in anticipation of snow. City officials open the shelter at 1400 E. Federal St. when temperatures are expected to fall below 25 degrees and other dangerous conditions, including snow and high winds, are forecast.

"The Code Blue initiative has saved lives," said Kevin Lindamood, vice president of Health Care for the Homeless, an advocacy group that connects homeless people to medical care and housing. "It has generated data that clearly shows the need for a winterlong shelter."

Lindamood said that in the 1980s and 1990s the city paid to provide more beds at local shelters and opened a backup shelter at the National Guard Armory from November to April, but that is no longer the case.

Lindamood said Waller and Clash were clients at Health Care for the Homeless. A third man found with Waller and Clash has yet to be identified. He was being treated at University of Maryland Medical Center.

Health Care for the Homeless is putting together a list of homeless people who died this year for an annual memorial service Dec. 21 -- the winter solstice and longest night of the year. Last year, a number of churches agreed to ring their bells 80 times, once for every homeless person who died in the city in 2004. An 81st person was added later.

Lindamood said he was sad to add Waller's and Clash's names to the growing list. "We keep gathering these names," he said. "And it just gets to be overwhelming."

Laura Gillis, president of Baltimore Homeless Services Inc., a nonprofit arm of city government, said she was also eager to review the Code Blue shelter policy. "We need to get these people in off the streets and into housing," she said. "They are dying out there."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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