Carroll County and the region plunged into arctic scale, single-digit low temperatures last week, pushing the county's cold weather shelter to the edge of capacity and beyond, according to Carina Canon, associate director of housing and shelter for Human Services Programs of Carroll County, Inc., which runs the shelter.
The shelter was designed to handle 25 clients per night, but has been averaging 35 to 40 thus far this winter, and Canon said the only relief has been a partnership with the Westminster Rescue Mission, which houses about six of those clients on five nights of the week. With cold weather predicted to persist, HSP may have to open the Westminster Senior and Center as an auxiliary shelter.
"We sure are on the edge, but we haven't utilized the senior center yet because it is one more thing to coordinate," Canon said.
The recent extreme cold and similar conditions during last year's "polar vortex" chill may have driven more people to the cold weather shelter, but according to HSP Executive Director Cindy Parr, the shelter has been operating at or beyond capacity for years. In fact, the number of people utilizing the shelter has grown every year since 2008, except a small slump in 2012.
Parr provided shelter data showing a total of 130 individuals utilized the cold weather shelter in the winter of 2008-2009, and of those, each individual utilized the shelter an average of 28.94 times, the average "bednights" is the parlance of the HSP shelter system. In 2010-2011, the shelter saw 152 total clients with 25.48 average bednights, while in 2013 the total number of clients had reached a record 212 and an 22.08 bednights.
"Keep in mind we had some mild winters in there too," Parr said. "We had the back-to-back blizzards in 2010, then we came out of that and 2011 and 2012 were fairly mild winters."
Parr said the number of homeless in Carroll have been increasing in recent years, driving a higher utilization of all the shelters HSP operates — such as the emergency homeless shelters for families and individuals — but the cold weather shelter has seen the most growth of all and as such may serve as something of a bellwether for the current state of homelessness.
"I think our cold weather shelter is the most bothersome to me because the numbers we see are increasing," Parr said. "It's not just the same people coming back every year. There are new faces, new homeless."
In the winter of 2008-2009, our of the total 130 clients who used the cold weather shelter, 83 were new to the shelter, according to HSP statistics. In the 2013 -2014 winter season, 133 of 212 total clients were new to the shelter.
The end result of the increase in demand for the cold weather shelter over the past few years was that Parr went before the Carroll County Board of Commissioners during last year's budget season and explained that it was no longer possible to continue operating the shelter on the $6,500 budget HSP could allocate for it. In June, HSP was given a one-time allocation of $66,270 for the cold weather shelter by the commissioners.
"When we have the appropriate funding we can do a lot more," Parr said. "Having the money to do proper intake [for the cold weather shelter] this year, we were able to divert people into other programs and treatment services instead of their just sitting in the shelter."
At the same time, Parr said the $66,270 was based on the cold weather shelter seeing 25 clients per night, not 40, and the one-time disbursement does not address subsequent winters or the raising number of homeless utilizing the other shelters in Carroll County.
In 2008 for instance, 134 individuals sought shelter at the HSP emergency family shelter, and 175 we sheltered at the emergency shelter for single adults. In 2014, the numbers were 140 and 280 respectively.
Parr plans to address the board of commissioners again on Jan. 22 on the situation at the cold weather shelter and the shelter system as a whole.
"I think from our perspective funding is critical. The cold weather shelter is important because of the season that we are in, but sheltering homeless individuals is something that is not going away any time soon," she said. "We need to find a more permanent solution."