Montgomery County gearing up for ‘code blue’ weather

     Joel Snyder, housing case manager for the Salvation Army in Norristown, sets up cots in the organization's basement gym. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Joel Snyder, housing case manager for the Salvation Army in Norristown, sets up cots in the organization's basement gym. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    In the basement of the Salvation Army center in Norristown, 30 green cots now occupy a space that was once the swimming pool for a men’s club.

    Most will be for shelter overflow, said director of housing programs Marie Wenzel, but a handful are for extreme cold, known as a “code blue.”

    “We’ll have 22 people who this will be their residence every day, and then we’ll have the extra beds available for the code only,” she said.

    The Salvation Army is one of a handful of sites across the county that provides extra beds during the winter months and in response extreme conditions.

    Montgomery County health and public safety departments monitor weather forecasts and declare a cold blue when condition are unsafe for people outside for long periods of time.

    “A code blue is declared in times of extreme, life-threatening weather,” said Commissioner Josh Shapiro at a press conference about preparations. That’s usually defined by a wind chill of 20 degrees, he said.

    Sleet, snow and other precipitation can also warrant a code blue, said Tim Elbertson, with the Montgomery County Department of Public Safety. When a cold blue is called, government and social service agencies open up extra beds and sometimes provide daytime shelter to the homeless.

    County Commissioner Val Arkoosh said the dangers of cold weather can extend to people in their homes as well. 

    “Check on neighbors and friends, particularly elderly neighbors, make sure that their homes are adequately heated,” she urged.

    Most of the people experiencing homelessness in the county come in alone, and officials said only five families took advantage of code blue support last year, according to Tricia Bradly, program manager with Your Way Home, a housing group in Montgomery County.

    Sixty code blue beds will be available across the county this winter, she said, adding they are expected to stay at capacity.

    Zach Costello, outreach coordinator with Resources for Human Development, one of the social service groups operating in Montgomery County, said the largest populations of people experiencing homelessness are clustered in Pottstown and Norristown.

    As for Norristown’s substantial immigrant community, Wenzel said very few Spanish-speaking clients tap her resources — they tend to have extensive social networks to lean on.

    “When [people] have no more couches to sleep on, they come here,” said Wenzel.

    Cold weather resources:

    For information on code blue resources and plans, visit www.montcopa.org/codeblue.
    Officials advise calling one general intake number, 1-877-646-6306, rather than individual shelters if you are a resident of Montgomery County in need of housing. That number connects callers to The Your Way Home (YWH) Call Center. More information at www.yourwayhome.org.
    Need help heating your home? “The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also known as LIHEAP, helps low-income families pay their heating bills. LIHEAP is a grant that offers assistance in the form of a cash grant, sent directly to the utility company, or a crisis grant for households in immediate danger of being without heat, according to Montgomery County spokeswoman Jessica Willingham. Montgomery County residents can call 1-800-591-8234 for assistance.

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