Westside shelter takes on new importance as county's homeless brave the cold

After eight years cycling in and out of homelessness, Randy Davis slipped on wet grass and broke his pelvis.

The 57-year-old, who became homeless after a “challenging divorce,” spent nearly four months in a rehabilitation center, wondering if he would ever recover enough to live independently. Then two months ago, he was discharged and started looking for a place to go. He ended up at the Westside Men’s Shelter in Catonsville.

“It’s a good shelter,” Davis said. “It helped me get back on my feet.” Literally, Davis said — he is now able to walk, with a cane.

The 154-bed shelter, perched on a tree-lined hill on the Spring Grove Hospital Center campus, serves a little-known population of western Baltimore County men who struggle to maintain housing. Terri Kingeter, Baltimore County’s homeless shelter administrator, said that last year 544 men passed through the Westside Shelter’s doors.

During cold winter stretches, like a recent cold snap that lasted from Christmas through the first week in January, the shelter takes on a more urgent role, expanding its capacity by 25 beds in order to shelter people from freezing temperatures.

“When it’d get cold outside,” Davis said of his time on the streets, “I’d put my head in my coat, and blow in it.”

The county expands shelter capacity during Code Blue alerts, which indicate that it is cold enough outside to induce hypothermia. In a cold week in January, the number using the freezing weather shelter ranged from two to 11 people. The county as a whole has 106 freezing-weather shelter beds available.

Kingeter said that the county’s shelters were under Code Blue alerts for 29 days this season as of Jan. 4, an increase of more than 50 percent over the year before.

The Westside Men’s Shelter has between two and five people who only stay at the shelter during Code Blue alerts, its manager, Kurt Wesolowski, said. Kingeter said that in the second week in January, as many as 11 stayed in the shelter in a single night.

The shelter has 25 Code Blue beds, which have not been at capacity since the shelter’s new building replaced a “double-wide trailer” in 2015. When the county’s freezing weather shelters are full, however, Kingeter said they find mats or floor space.

“In the cold, we’re not going to turn people away,” she said.

Regular beds in homeless shelters in the county, however, are almost always at 100 percent capacity, Kingeter said. Because of that, she said, the number of people served each year has held steady through fluctuations in the hard-to-count homeless population.

Community Assistance Network, the nonprofit that runs the county’s two shelters, says on its website that the Eastside Family Emergency Shelter, a 238-bed facility that houses women and families as well as men, is the county’s main Code Blue shelter.

Temperatures in the Baltimore area broke records at the start of the new year with an eight-day sub-freezing streak, the longest in 28 years.

With temperatures so low that traveling to warm indoor places like malls is difficult, Kingeter said the county’s shelters have made special accommodations to host people not only at night, as is usual, but during the day as well.

Code Blue guests are only temporary residents of the shelter, she said, but they can call an intake number to get a referral to become “permanent” residents.

Those long-term residents stay for up to 90 days, and are admitted as part of a program that includes an assessment of a person’s barriers to finding housing, job seeking programs and case management.

“Many start as Code Blue because they want to live outside — or there are no permanent beds available,” Kingeter said.

The Community Assistance Network estimates that the Westside shelter costs more than $2 million annually to run, of which nearly half is provided by the county. The rest of the cost is made up of a combination of donations, volunteer hours and outside grants.

The county has 473 year-round shelter beds for the general population, in addition to freezing-weather beds, domestic-violence shelter beds and transitional-shelter beds for families, Kingeter noted, explaining that number has increased by 165 beds since 2015.

“We’re always turning people away from the shelter,” she said, adding that the county encourages people to call back the next day or the day after to request a bed.

When shelters are full, the county sometimes will refer people to city shelters, Kingeter said. Other times, people are staying with friends or family, who allow them to stay another night or two.

The county’s shelters do not require that their guests are residents of the county.

At last year’s annual point-in-time survey, a count of all the homeless county residents that takes place during the last two weeks of January, the county had 609 people without homes, Kingeter said. Thirty-six percent of those people were unsheltered. This year’s count will take place on Jan. 23.

That number can fluctuate from year to year depending on the weather, as people living in encampments may find somewhere warmer to go when it is particularly cold, Kingeter said. Overall, however, Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development data shows that the homeless population in the county has remained relatively steady from year to year since at least 2014.

Dundalk is the area of the county with the most homeless people, Kingeter said. The official count, however, is conducted countywide and cannot be broken down by region.

The Wilkens police precinct, however, also has homeless residents, Baltimore County police officer Max Mills said in a December interview.

“You meet homeless people every day,” Mills said, adding that police are often called to Route 40 to respond to complaints about them standing on corners and asking for money.

Officers sometimes take homeless men they encounter to the Westside Men’s Shelter, Mills said, but do not do so often unless it is cold outside, because unless Code Blue is in effect they need a referral.

Women in need of shelter on the west side of the county can be given bus tokens to travel to the Eastside Shelter, which houses women, Kingeter said. Nearly 60 percent of the county’s homeless people are women.

If there are no beds and the shelters are not under a Code Blue alert, residents are asked to call the next day.

“It’s tough out there,” Davis said. “People have no idea what the streets can do to you — they can swallow you.”

For those lucky enough to get a bed, staying at the shelter can be life changing.

“They make sure you take care of business,” Davis said. “They keep you safe.”

In a shelter resident’s first weeks, Kingeter said, barriers to housing are identified, such as a criminal record or a bad credit score.

Its employees — who number between 20 and 25 — try to ensure that residents are “doing something positive” during their stay, such as looking for a job or a home, Kingeter said.

Many shelter residents are employed — “and many more are looking to be employed,” said Kingeter, who did not have statistics on the number of people at Westside who are employed, but said that half leave with some type of income, whether a job or pension or unemployment benefits.

The shelter serves three meals a day and has a health suite. It has a social room with cards, chess, game tables and a television where residents can watch movies.

Rows of five bunk beds fill three dormitories; a smaller, more private room with four beds is also available for residents with special needs or situations, such as those who are transgender.

To keep the shelter tidy, each resident is assigned a chore. Davis’ chore is keeping the kitchen counters clean.

The county’s workforce development program interacts with residents and posts job listings on a bulletin board. Residents can be placed in rapid re-housing programs group housing or supportive housing, Kingeter said.

Fifty-five percent of residents end up in permanent, stable housing after leaving the shelter.

Shelter residents with job interviews can take their pick from a rack of donated suits that hangs in the laundry room.

Shelter resident L. C. Harris said in a Jan. 4 interview, held in a computer room in the shelter available for job seekers, that he had a job interview scheduled for that night, for a custodial position at a church.

“[Westside] is a nice place to be, it’s a real good program,” Harris said. “It helps you out.”

Davis — an Army veteran — said the shelter helped him access Veterans Affairs resources as well as resources from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

After his three-month stay ends, Davis said he hopes the shelter’s resources will be able to get him into his own apartment somewhere in Catonsville.

“I think 2018 is going to be my year,” Davis said.

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