During brutal cold, Philly outreach prevents fatalities among homeless

Luke Dunn talks to a homeless man and takes down his contact to make sure he gets entered into the homeless database, and promises to return for a referral for an I.D.

Philadelphia outreach worker Luke Dunn talks to a homeless man. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

With temperatures projected to stay above freezing for the next few days, Philadelphia’s Code Blue alert ended Tuesday morning.

The two weeks of added outreach to the homeless, which began on Christmas Day, was one of the longest in city history. After several days of highs in the teens and 20s, the temperature dropped to zero over the weekend for the first time in decades.

For homeless outreach workers, the bitter cold meant long hours scouring the streets to persuade people to come inside to keep warm. Winter is always a busy time, but the bitter cold sent them into overdrive.

Their work paid off. The city’s shelter system – 3,500 beds during the Code Blue – was at or near capacity most nights. As of Monday afternoon, no homeless people had died from exposure to the cold, according to city officials.

“It’s really a relief,” said Liz Hersh, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services. “We’re just sitting there holding our breath, hoping that we haven’t missed somebody or that someone isn’t hiding.”

Michael Dahl, executive director of Broad Street Ministry, agreed, calling it a “heroic effort” from the city and its partners.

“I’m extraordinarily thankful,” said Dahl, adding that it used to be common for homeless people to perish in the cold. Enlisting more places for homeless people to keep warm — including places without shelter beds such as Broad Street Ministry — has helped, he said.

“Because the city took the time to look ahead and set this contingency plan, he said, such deaths have become “a much more rare occurrence.”

While some of the homeless people who came inside during the Code Blue will return to the streets, others may use the respite as a stepping stone for changing their lives.

“A number of people who came in for Code Blue requested regular shelter beds and have gotten shelter. We’ll try to move people into drug treatment if that’s what they need,” Hersh said. “We’re moving people into permanent housing. We’re trying to help people self-resolve.”

Nearly all of the shelter beds available during the Code Blue will remain through the winter.

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