Local shelters dealing with the chronically homeless do more than open up their doors when the temperatures turn frigid enough to declare a Code Blue emergency.
They also go out looking for those most resistant to services – whether they’re hanging out in a bus station, under an expressway or in an abandoned building.
It’s all part of an attempt to be more proactive, especially in dealing with the most vulnerable homeless people, those who would just as soon face life-threatening wind chills as submit to the rules of a homeless shelter.
Monday night, when the thermometer went down to 5 degrees, the City Mission had about 43 people line up at its doors to escape the cold. A van, staffed by the City Mission and the Matt Urban Hope Center, picked up another 12 homeless people.
Last Thursday night, when it was also very frigid, 39 people went to the City Mission doors, while about nine more arrived by van.
It’s safe to assume that those agreeing to the van ride would have braved the bone-chilling temperatures for the night if shelter employees hadn’t gone looking for them.
Code Blue alerts are sounded when the air temperature drops to 15 degrees or lower, or when the wind chill factor slips into the single digits. But the City Mission, working with seven other agencies, and St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy may open their doors when other weather conditions warrant.
Clients approached by the van personnel usually are considered the chronically homeless, many of them coping with a mental illness that makes them shy away from shelters, no matter how cold it is.
“The goal is to engage them in conversation, so they feel safe and trust us,” said Raine Schreiner, director of client services at the City Mission. “Then we can bring them into the shelter.”
Imagine the shackles of mental illness that prevent a person from accepting a warm cot and a hot meal when the temperature hits 5 degrees.
“Some are ready to jump in the van, and others aren’t,” Schreiner said. “So we offer them hot chocolate and a sandwich and whatever they need – hats, gloves, scarves and blankets.”
Last Thursday night, Schreiner and three others visited the city’s most popular gathering sites for the homeless, including the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority bus station, where the van picked up four men and a pregnant woman.
“It’s kind of a pickup point,” Schreiner explained. “Word has gotten out on the street, so the clients gather there.”
Schreiner didn’t want to specify the others of the roughly dozen spots where the van may visit, including perches under expressways, abandoned houses with no heat or electricity and even a stand of trees that provides some shelter.
Local experts say more than 200 chronically homeless people live on the streets, many of them resistant to service because of their mental illness.
Some outsiders may scoff at those numbers.
“There are a lot of unseen homeless individuals living on the streets,” Schreiner said.
Some may walk up and down the streets all night long, to keep warm. Others may gather in well-protected spots that can’t be seen by the casual observer.
Schreiner was asked what message she could give the public about that population.
“The barriers to overcoming mental health issues are just enormous,” she said. “It’s not just a pill you pop into somebody’s mouth.”
Schreiner talked about what it’s like to cruise the homeless haunts on such a cold night.
“It’s just a really humbling experience, to see people living in the cracks and crevices of Buffalo,” she said. “I think when you don’t see it so much here, you ignore it or think it doesn’t exist.”