Bitter cold sparks continuing Philly efforts to shelter homeless

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Homeless men crowd into the dining room of the Sunday Breakfast Association, where a prayer service was being held.

Homeless men crowd into the dining room of the Sunday Breakfast Association, where a prayer service was being held. On Thursday, the shelter in Philadelphia will be serving Thanksgiving meals to an expected 500 guests. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

With bone-chilling temperatures in the weekend forecast, Philadelphia is nearly doubling the number of homeless outreach workers hitting the streets to bring people inside from the cold.

Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services typically has 20 outreach workers at its disposal.

“People can die out here, and we take that very seriously,” said David Holloman, director of external affairs.

To date, the bitter cold hasn’t claimed any lives.

Holloman’s office is also extending hours at a warming site at Aramingo and Lehigh avenues in Kensington, the heart of the city’s opioid epidemic.

There, some homeless people struggling with addiction have stayed outside because they don’t want to end up at a shelter outside the neighborhood — and potentially go through withdrawal if they can’t get back before the drugs are out of their system.

Starting Friday night through Monday morning, the warming center at Cione Recreation will be open 24 hours a day. No ID is necessary to come inside.

“If you need to come in, we’re encouraging everyone to come in,” said Holloman.

Temperatures on Saturday are expected to reach only 20 degrees and drop below zero after dark.

It’s a similar story on Sunday, though the evening hours won’t be quite as frigid.

Respite from the cold

At Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, a shelter in Center City, that kind of weather has kept the place humming for days, with people showing up throughout the day to get out of the cold.

Nehemiah Howard walked into Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission about a week ago to get out of the cold. He’s rarely left the Center City shelter since.

“I haven’t been outside, not today at all, and it looks like I ain’t planning on going out,” said Howard, 44, on Friday.

Howard said staying inside so much has been hard. At times, he’s felt a bit claustrophobic, especially when the cold interferes with his plans.

On Friday, he was supposed to head to West Philly for his cousin’s birthday, but he decided it’s just too cold to go.

“I feel disappointed, you know. When it’s somebody’s birthday you want to try and celebrate with them or at least say ‘hi,’ ” said Howard.

Harvey Bass, who has worked at Sunday Breakfast for two decades, said the shelter has been extremely busy, and all 240 beds are taken.

“We have people sitting in chairs at night because there’s no more beds, but we don’t turn anyone away,” said Bass.

Some relief in sight

During a Code Blue alert, the city adds hundreds of emergency shelter beds to its year-round stock so more homeless people have a warm place to stay.

On any given night of the last week or so, roughly 80 percent of those nearly 3,000 beds have been filled, according to the city. As of Friday afternoon, the shelter system was 93 percent full.

On Monday, temperatures are expected to climb above freezing; potentially ending this extended Code Blue.

“But this is Mother Nature,” said Holloman. “We’re hoping that it does let up on us.”

If you see someone out in the cold, call the Philadelphia Homeless Outreach Hotline at 215-232-1984. You can also tweet @phlcityhomeless.

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