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by Mark Reutter4:20 pmDec 21, 20150

City to open winter shelter to house homeless persons at higher temperatures

BREW EXCLUSIVE: A city official says the zero-degree threshold for sheltering homeless persons was never approved by Mayor Rawlings-Blake and was a matter of “bad communication” at a meeting

Above: The Oliver Multi-Purpose Center in East Baltimore is being looked at as a site for a winter homeless shelter.

In the wake of criticism over a homeless official’s recommendation to lower the threshold for sheltering homeless persons from 13 degrees to zero degrees, the Rawlings-Blake administration has released a tentative winter shelter plan to The Brew.

The plan, which officials say has been in the works for some time, is starkly different from the one outlined last week by Jacquelyn Duval-Harvey, director of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services.

Starting in early January, a winter shelter is being planned to offer beds to homeless persons whenever temperatures drop below 32 degrees, Deputy Mayor Dawn Kirstaetter said this afternoon.

The 32-degree trigger for a separate shelter was clarified in discussions by city officials late last week, according to Kirstaetter.

“Bad Communication”

The zero-degree threshold discussed last Wednesday at a Journey Home board meeting involved a miscommunication over what actions the health department and the mayor’s human services office would take in times of extreme cold, Kirstaetter said.

“[Neither] the mayor nor health commissioner ever agreed to a zero degree threshold [for the homeless]. That was simply bad communication,” she said.

The city is preparing an RFP (Request for Proposals) for a private provider to manage and staff the winter shelter.

Both the location and funding of the overflow shelter have not yet been finalized, Kirstaetter said. Two tentative candidates for the shelter are the Oliver Multi-Purpose Center in East Baltimore and a city-owned building on Guilford Avenue.

The city hopes to add about 250 emergency beds for homeless persons this winter.

Last year, the city offered about 200 cots at the War Memorial Building as emergency “overflow” for persons in cold weather.

More Homeless Than Beds

At present, the city has 1,191 beds available for the homeless year-around at its Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center and at private homes run by groups like McVets, Project Plase and Sarah’s Hope.

The private shelters can accommodate an additional 211 people if needed.

Health Care for the Homeless estimates that there are at least 3,000 homeless persons in Baltimore on any given night. The city’s most recent “point in time” (PIA) count found 2,638 people living on the street.

The accuracy of the count is open to different interpretations even by those who conduct it.

For example, while 351 homeless teenagers were located in the PIA count, the authors of the report pointedly noted that 2,030 students in the city school system self-reported being “homeless or unstably housed” during the same year.

“Severe Code Blue”

The controversy over the city’s cold-weather plans was sparked by a statement by Duval-Harvey last week.

She told the Journey Home board that her office planned to make “Severe Code Blue,” a new designation of the health department,  the trigger for emergency homeless beds.

The current threshold for homeless shelter beds under Baltimore’s regular “Code Blue” program is 13 degrees Fahrenheit.

Most East Coast cities provide shelter for the homeless when temperatures drop below 32 degrees.

The Rawlings-Blake administration believes that homeless persons should have access to emergency shelter at 32 degrees, Kirstaetter said, stressing that its homeless policy is distinct from Code Blue alerts instituted by the health department during cold weather.

After the Journey Home meeting, board member Antonia Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, alerted homeless providers and the media to the zero-degree proposal discussed by Duval-Harvey.

The proposal, according to Fasanelli, was presented as “an established plan, not some idea to be under discussion or review by our board or the Continuum of Care community.”

At a Thursday meeting of Continuum of Care, an umbrella group of homeless providers, Fasanelli faulted Human Services for not putting together a winter shelter plan.

“This should have been done months ago, not cobbled together now,” she said.

Those at the Continuum of Care meeting, by voice vote, expressed shock and disapproval of the zero-degree threshold.

Other advocates for the homeless have blasted City Hall, saying people would die as a result of a lowered threshold.

“32 degrees is cold, 13 degrees is deadly, and 0 degrees? That’s just unbelievable. With thousands of people living on our streets, this recent decision will literally cost lives,” James Crawford Jr., member of Housing Our Neighbors, said in a statement over the weekend.

Crawford has lived on the street and worked with Health Care for the Homeless to get better services for those now camped under I-83, along Martin Luther King Boulevard, inside vacant buildings or simply wandering the streets at night.

Kirstaetter said Human Services hopes to open the winter shelter by January 4 and stay in operation through mid-March.

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