Bitterly cold weather prompted area homeless shelters this week to relax their rules for as many as 80 individuals who were provided with emergency accommodations in Buffalo.
The Buffalo City Mission issued “Code Blue” alerts more than a dozen times in the past month, said Angel Steele, senior case manager.
“When the temperature goes down to 19 degrees, we declare a Code Blue, and individuals enter our facility between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., receive supper and spend the night on a cot. Before they leave at 8 the next morning, they are fed breakfast,” Steele said.
In warmer weather, a shelter may have to turn away people if it’s at capacity. But that does not happen when temperatures dip dangerously low like this week.
With all of the Code Blue declarations so far this winter, the homeless have been provided more than 400 nights of sleep beneath a roof at the City Mission on the 100 block of East Tupper Street.
It’s a similar story at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy on the 300 block of Walden Avenue, where between 30 and 40 individuals have been sheltered since the cold weather arrived in December, according to David Topor, a volunteer lay missionary.
“We had 30 people from New Year’s Eve into New Year’s Day, and they were grateful – very grateful – for a place to stay,” Topor said.
Those at the mission Wednesday prepared for another Code Blue night.
During last winter, the first Code Blue was declared on Jan. 8. At least nine homeless people died from a variety of causes last year in the Buffalo area, according to the Western New York Coalition for the Homeless.
This winter, there have been more nights when shelters have opened their doors because of a revised threshold on the temperature level, up to 19 degrees.
When we have a Code Blue, we work together with St. Luke’s and other agencies and volunteers going around in an outreach van seeking individuals who are on the streets to give them a place to stay,” Steele said. “It also gives us an opportunity to work with these individuals and get them services.”
One local expert on homelessness credited the Code Blue outreach workers with performing an “inspiring” service that forms bonds of trust with the area’s homeless.
“While everybody was out partying for New Year’s Eve, there were outreach workers getting people off the streets,” said Dale Zuchlewski, executive director of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York. “It’s kind of taken for granted when you’re in a nice, warm house with an electric blanket and heat.”
Under normal circumstances, the City Mission accommodates more than 100 homeless men, whose stays range from a matter of months to up to two years, while efforts are made to place them in permanent living situations, said Kevin McCarley, residential coordinator.
“People think that people choose to live out on the streets, but it’s more that they have such severe problems that it’s not a rational choice,” Zuchlew-ski said. “Sometimes they don’t even think they deserve housing.”
Kelly Foster, a 55-year-old homeless man, said he has been taking advantage of the Code Blue declarations.
“I’ve been staying at the City Mission the last few nights. I’ve been homeless about five years. Before that I was living at a place in Ransomville,” said Foster, who, after leaving the City Mission Wednesday morning, spent the day panhandling in the downtown area.
He said he rotates from one neighborhood to another, so as not to wear out his welcome, going inside to fast-food restaurants and other businesses open to the public.
“I don’t want to upset anyone. I will stay in the bathrooms at these places and drink a beer and smoke a cigarette, but I end up getting kicked out,” he said.
Dressed in a light pair of brown corduroy pants, white sneakers, a black hoodie and blue winter coat, the shaggy-haired and gray-bearded Niagara Falls native said his goal is to reconnect with some form of public assistance in 2014 to secure an apartment.
“I was on Social Security Disability, but it got canceled. I want a change of life this year. I want my own bed, a blanket and pillow and maybe a TV and a couple packs of cigarettes,” he said, his right thumb and pointer finger yellowed from nicotine.
James Archie, 55, also panhandling Wednesday, said he counts himself fortunate to no longer be among the homeless.
“I just got done being homeless. I got a place on Northland Avenue, but I have no food,” he said, standing outside a Main Street fast-food restaurant.
Foster had just inhaled a bacon burger and listened as Archie offered advice.
“If you’re homeless, don’t be ashamed to ask for help. There are people who will help you. Try for Social Security, food stamps and go to the shelters,” Archie said.
Foster smiled and polished off a chocolate milkshake.
Topor, of St. Luke’s, said there is hope for the homeless.
“Some of the people who help us here were homeless themselves, and now as they have gotten better, they give back by helping us,” Topor said. “Some were down and out, sometimes there was mental illness and sometimes substance abuse issues.”
As of late Wednesday, with the temperature dropping, Foster said he planned to return to the City Mission for another night of warmth.
Asked if he enjoyed the company of others there, he said he prefers to keep to himself.
“I’m sort of an unknown soul in this world, and not the best person to know,” he said.