On winter nights, a bus makes its rounds, offering the city's homeless an escape from the weather

Out of the cold

January 31, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

Nights like these are the worst, when the mercury dips below 32 degrees and the streets are cold, even for a man whose bed is usually nothing more than a bench downtown.

And so on a night like this, Michael Jones makes his way onto a bus that shuttles him to the city shelter, where he joins nearly 300 others to weather that most difficult part of the year when the sun sets and the streets stand empty and the cold closes in all around.

Jones has been homeless for about eight years, spending nights in various spots downtown. He learned about the city's free Code Blue bus service through "word on the street," and picks it up in front of the Oasis Station shelter on Gay Street.

"Its gets very cold," says Jones, 41, at the city's Code Blue shelter in East Baltimore. "But I have blankets. Tonight I just felt like coming up here."

Around and around, the yellow school bus makes the downtown circuit from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on nights when the temperature is forecast to drop below 33 degrees, maneuvering through the emptying downtown and into the barren streets of East Baltimore. A mild winter, it may seem, but there have been almost 30 Code Blue nights so far.

Vanessa Helena Jenkins feels it.

"Just trying to stay warm," says Jenkins, 54, shivering, though bundled up, as she boards the bus.

Jenkins has been going to the shelter every night, and she's happy that she has the alternative. "I think it's nice," she says. "It's been pretty good."

As the bus winds past a church, she points to the steps. "We used to sleep out there on the church steps," she says of two winters ago. "On blankets and cardboard. It was cold."

Behind her, a man in a top hat coos about the fat flakes falling. "It's like Anchorage, Alaska," he says to no one in particular.

"They'll be straggling all night long," says Zeke Carter, 72, the bus driver. "There's always someone there."

Some come prepared, with stuffed duffel bags and backpacks and overflowing garbage bags. Others come empty-handed.

On another recent night, Fannie V. Wells sits on the bus toward the end of its route, two stuffed bags in tow. It's past 8 p.m. so the bus is nearly empty. At 5 p.m., it's almost always full.

Wells says she's been coming to the shelter "on and off" for three weeks. It's either that or the bench in front of Legg Mason. "It's OK," she says. "It's a place to stay."

The 54-year-old slept outside last winter. She says she was homeless for about four months last year, then had a place to stay until her basement apartment flooded and she found herself back on the streets.

"See you in the morning, driver," she says to Carter as she departs. "I thank my God for him."

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner, says this is the first year that the city's Code Blue Winter Shelter is open every night from Nov. 15 through March 31, with the pickup bus operating on colder nights. Last winter the shelter was open only when the temperature was below 32 degrees. Before that it was available only when the temperature was predicted to be below 25 degrees with sustained 15 mph winds.

Sharfstein says the decision to remain open in the winter was a response to a large number of hypothermia deaths, as well as the logistics of opening and closing a shelter.

There were 15 hypothermia-caused deaths last winter -- occurring between Oct. 1, 2005, and Jan. 26, 2006 -- compared with seven so far this season.

"We heard from both the clientele and the staff that it's hard for people to tell the difference between 32 and 33 degrees," says Sharfstein. "So the need to keep it open was definitely there for people who really have no other place to stay."

According to a 2005 count, there are about 2,900 homeless people in Baltimore City, a number that includes those living on the street and in shelters.

The Code Blue shelter this year is at the former Elmer A. Henderson Elementary School in East Baltimore. And for the first time, it is being operated by the National Institute for Healthy Behaviors, a nonprofit organization run by William Glover-Bey and his wife, Myra. Inside the shelter, the Glover-Beys and their staff of about 20 attempt to contain the chaos inevitable from housing what will become more than 280 people on this night -- some dazed, appearing high or drunk.

Sixty are women, and 10 are children younger than 18. The women and children sleep on cots in separate rooms from the men.

"Sometimes they come in at 3 or 4 in the morning," says Myra Glover-Bey. "They can come at anytime and in any shape or condition."

"We like to call it a low-demand shelter," says William Glover-Bey. "This gives those still struggling with addictions a place to stay."

Bags are searched and people frisked to make sure no weapons, alcohol, drugs or even food make it in. Mental health and addictions services are offered.

Many people congregate in the cafeteria, where green beans and tuna salad are the night's meal.

A woman throws down a chair. A man screams that the Gestapo run the place.

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