Baltimore’s homeless shelters were brimming with guests as city outreach teams urged people to go inside to avoid hypothermia when temperatures plummeted to the single digits Thursday.
City officials were working to stave off cold-weather deaths after low temperatures have already claimed at least 17 lives across Maryland this winter. Six people have died in Baltimore, including at least three since Jan. 22, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
At least four people who died from the cold were experiencing homelessness, including one in Baltimore who had been living in an abandoned building, the city’s homeless services director Jerrianne Anthony said.
“Shelters are bleeding at capacity, over capacity, right now, but we’re not turning people away, simply because we realize people could die of hypothermia,” Anthony said.
Dangerously low temperatures in the Greater Baltimore region arrived as a wave of extreme cold blanketed much of the country. Temperatures dropped to 6 degrees and wind chill dipped below zero Thursday morning at BWI Marshall Airport after an arctic front moved through the area.
Homeless shelters opened their doors to more people to offer relief from the biting cold. Rowena Daly, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, which operates the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center, said the shelter in downtown Baltimore expanded its capacity to take in more people from the cold.
“We are serving 335 people there. Normally we serve 275, so definitely an uptick,” Daly said. “Nobody’s ever turned away.”
If the shelter exceeds its capacity, it will transport people seeking shelter to other facilities, including Bridge Haven Shelter, Volunteers of America, Pinderhughes, the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training, and Sarah’s Hope, she said.
In addition to an increase of overnight guests, the Weinberg shelter has also had more people staying there during the day. When the temperature dips below freezing, guests with an assigned bed are allowed to return to their dorms during the day.
“During the day they’re staying warm in the day rooms at the shelter,” Daly said. “Normally people get up and go out, they go to work. A lot of people are hunkering down.”
Mary Wilson wore five layers while hanging out with some friends on the corner of East Madison Street and Fallsway on Thursday. The group had spent the night at the nearby Weinberg Center but braved the morning cold to seek some quiet. The shelter is chaotic and noisy on days when temperatures sink well below freezing.
“You can get peace of mind out here,” Wilson said.
Despite life-threatening cold, not everyone has been willing to leave the streets in favor of shelters. The city’s homeless outreach team has been on the streets from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily urging homeless people to take refuge inside, Anthony said.
“Sometimes people will say no initially,” Anthony said. “A lot of people have fears about leaving their things behind or how they will get back or just general fear of the shelter system.”
Baltimore City Interim Health Commissioner Mary Beth Haller enacted a “Code Blue” alert in the city through Friday morning in an effort to reduce hypothermia deaths. During Code Blue periods, the city also opens warming centers at libraries, senior centers and Community Action Partnership Centers.
Temperatures were expected to remain low into Friday, but the area is expected to get a break from the bitter cold this weekend.
Five people in Maryland died from the cold from Jan. 22 to Monday, including three in Baltimore, according to the state health department. Two other people died during that period in Frederick and Montgomery counties.
The cold weather also snarled commutes — breaking tracks and slowing trains between Baltimore and Washington — and delayed and closed schools across the state.
On the MARC Penn Line between Baltimore and D.C., trains were delayed up to an hour and 20 minutes Thursday because of weather-related damage to the tracks. Amtrak rails running into Baltimore were broken in two places, according to Amtrak spokeswoman Beth Toll.
One rail that was broken south of Baltimore was repaired by Thursday afternoon, though residual delays persisted. Another broken section had not yet been repaired.