Cold temps and COVID create problems for Philadelphia’s homeless

With only an elbow visible, a person experiencing homelessness sleeps in a door way at a Center City Church (Tom MacDonald, WHYY)

With only an elbow visible, a person experiencing homelessness sleeps in a door way at a Center City Church (Tom MacDonald, WHYY)

COVID-19 was already burdening the shelter system, and now a cold snap is causing additional problems for people experiencing homelessness in the Philadelphia region.

The city of Philadelphia has been in Code Blue since Thursday, taking special measures to keep people safe, including 24-hour outreach to find people experiencing homelessness and get them in shelter beds, and allowing them to stay inside emergency housing during the day.

Liz Hersh, Director of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services, sums up the situation this way.

“We have a perfect storm: a COVID surge and extended Code Blue.”

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She said the city is testing people as they come into the shelter system and moving those who test positive into a quarantine facility.

The city is also working to add a 40-bed COVID-recovery site for men who are homeless, but they are still not sure when that space will be available due to a lack of staffing.

Hersh said many homeless Philadelphians have been vaccinated through 102 health department vaccine clinics administering over 1,800 COVID vaccines in 2021.

In Montgomery County, officials are also doing outreach to those experiencing homelessness with hopes of getting them off the streets and into shelters.

Todd Stieritz of the Montgomery County Department of Public Safety said, “Under a Code Blue, many of our shelters in Montgomery County will expand capacity or expand other services that they might provide to homeless individuals. And in addition, other locations that may not on a regular day serve as a shelter, like a faith-based organization, will open as a Code Blue-only shelter … From the county government level, it expands our capacity to house people who might be experiencing homelessness.”

With temperatures and wind chills dipping into the single digits, heaters are going to get a workout. Stieritz said they are already concerned about people not being able to afford their heating bill. “With the cold weather being so dangerous for those without sufficient heat, our local gas and electric utility providers each offer assistance programs for individuals who are having trouble paying their bills, particularly during the winter months. So, we would encourage anyone who is having difficulties to reach out to your utility provider for more information on which programs might be available to you.”

In New Jersey, Camden County officials are also working to make sure people are sheltered properly. Camden County Commissioner Carmen Rodriguez said people need to think about the safety of children and elders in the cold as well.

“We try to encourage people to please be mindful of the temperature, particularly with children, when they go outside … because they can run around and not realize that their extremities are starting to freeze over.” She added, “We also need to be mindful of our seniors because seniors, in an effort to try to maintain their bills, will put themselves in situations where they will be kind of cold. We want to make sure that everybody checks in on the seniors.”

She added that police in town are working in partnership with the county to check up on sick and elderly residents. They have also added 30 beds to their shelter system to deal with the social distancing issues that crop up because of COVID-19.

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