Frozen out

December 06, 2005

The deaths of two homeless men who spent Saturday night huddled under blankets in downtown Baltimore in freezing temperatures are heartrending indicators of a flaw in the city's "Code Blue" winter weather emergency shelter plan.

Under the plan, city health officials open a 200-bed emergency shelter when the temperature falls below 25 degrees and wind and snow are expected. That shelter is meant to supplement 18 other year-round shelters in the city that tend to fill up fast on normal nights and even faster on frigid ones. On bad weather days, homeless people left on the streets are directed to the Code Blue shelter.

The deaths last weekend illustrate, however, that tying additional shelter space to a set temperature and not to an obvious need can have tragic consequences. Three other homeless people died of hypothermia at the beginning of this year. One died last year and four died in 2003. And while the number of deaths declined after the city opened the Code Blue shelter in 2003, no one - not one person - should die on the city's streets for lack of a place to stay warm.

A shelter that operates based on how cold it is outside sends confusing messages to homeless people who may not know if it's 25 degrees or 29 degrees, but know that they are cold. If they are unsure when and whether the Code Blue shelter will open, they are more likely to try to make do on their own, as did the two men who died.

The city pays for 100 additional beds in other emergency shelters every winter to expand capacity. However, those shelters have rules that bar entry to people who are visibly drunk, under the influence of drugs, disruptive, belligerent or severely mentally ill, thus excluding the very people likely to die in the cold. The Code Blue shelter has no such rules and is designed simply to get homeless people out of the elements. Data from the last three years show that on the coldest nights, 200 or more homeless people sought shelter there. Meanwhile, city shelters turned away people seeking refuge 19,344 times last year - 37,038 times statewide - because of lack of space.

So why not just leave the Code Blue shelter open during the entire winter? City officials say that option is too expensive and runs counter to national trends toward funding more permanent housing and increased supportive services for the homeless rather than building or opening more shelters. Still, given the city's affordable-housing shortage, providing more permanent housing for the homeless is a daunting challenge. Until that is done, either the Code Blue shelter should be kept open or the temperature bar should be set higher to allow people in - before they are nearly freezing.

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