Baltimore urges homeless indoors during extreme cold

Bone-chilling cold weather has prompted the city to intensify efforts to get all homeless people indoors overnight and into shelter beds, the Pugh administration said Tuesday.

Terry Hickey, director of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services, said the agency is sending crews out to encourage the estimated 600 people sleeping on Baltimore streets on any given night to use one of the more than 1,000 shelter beds available. Outreach workers are visiting known encampments after dark to “beg and cajole” anyone they find to come indoors, Hickey said. They will be offered direct transportation on the spot to a shelter.

But city officials cannot force anyone to come indoors who is not experiencing a medical emergency.

“With the temperatures as low as they are, we’re trying to go out of our way to convince folks to come in,” Hickey said. “The folks on the street now are not there for lack of contact.”

Those who see vulnerable people on the street at night are asked to call 911 so the city can send fire or police to respond.

Shelters generally provide accommodations from 6 p.m. until 11 a.m. Each person is provided dinner, breakfast and access to shower and laundry services.

The frigid weather — with highs reaching only into the 20s — is expected to continue through the weekend. Some light snow is possible overnight in Baltimore.

Additional shelter beds are made available when the temperature combined with the wind chill drops to 32 degrees between Oct. 15 and March 15. When temperatures combined with the wind chill fall to 13 degrees or lower, the city activates its Code Blue plan, which is a multi-agency response that offers more services to people at risk. The goal is to reduce deaths caused by hypothermia, or low body temperature.

One person has died of hypothermia this winter in Baltimore. Last winter, 11 people died.

A 42-year-old man who would identify himself only as Bishop said he planned to sleep Tuesday night in his tent at an encampment along Guilford Avenue at Bath Street in Mount Vernon. Outside his orange and beige tent, he was using propane and a camping stove to boil water to make his girlfriend tea. He had a stock of bottled water and other supplies from donations he says were made to the encampment.

The man — who said he has an associate’s degree in engineering from a community college and now works cooking and handing out fliers for a pizza shop — said he sparingly uses a propane-powered heater and nestles between two sleeping bags in a fetal position to sleep overnight, preferring his tent to dealing with what he sees as rules on top of rules for staying in public shelters. He said he became homeless from a combination of drug use and a lot of other issues that “snowballed.”

“Don’t think we’re just a bunch of bums, getting all high,” he said. “You try this. It is not easy. I have a little thermometer in there. It’s funny to wake up in the morning and see you’re sleeping in a freezer at 2 below.”

Kevin Lindamood, president of Health Care for the Homeless, said advocates, shelter staff and outreach workers go to strive to provide trustworthy services to Baltimore’s homeless population.

“Sometimes no matter how cold it gets, I have known people who, paradoxically, felt safer on the street,” Lindamood said. “The process of relationship-building takes time — sometimes days or months or years. That process does not move in a pattern aligned with the weather.”

Hickey said more and more people from the various city encampments have come into shelters in recent days amid the extreme cold. For example, more than half of the roughly 20 chronically homeless people who sleep at the encampment at Guilford and Bath have begun coming inside.

Overnight Monday, more people sought shelter than any day this season, Hickey said. All the downtown shelter beds were full and 66 people — including a family of three — slept at William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle School in West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.

The city funds 590 shelter beds during a typical night and adds 490 during extreme weather. People are separated into groups of men, women and families. Sarah’s Hope, operated by St. Vincent de Paul in Sandtown, accommodates families and was full Monday, Hickey said.

Transportation to overflow shelters is available for adults by going to the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center at 620 Fallsway and for families by going to Sarah’s Hope at 1114 N. Mount Street. People should arrive between 6 p.m and 11 p.m. for a ride.

For help, call 410-433-5175.

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