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Hundreds Packed Homeless Shelters During Freeze; Will Concern End in Warmer Temps?

"I think it's issues like this that remind us that even in the midst of all of this wealth in our community we still have people who are very vulnerable."

Photo: Flickr user AR McLin under a Creative Commons license.
Photo: Flickr user AR McLin under a Creative Commons license.

The warmer temperatures forecast in the latter part of last week and into last weekend could happily make it easy to forget the bitter cold brought by the polar vortex earlier last week.

But advocates in Montgomery County hope it won’t be a reason to forget about the homeless.

“It's easy for us to forget that while 40 degrees might sound balmy today because it's been 15, 40 degrees is still pretty cold if you're outside,” said Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County. “That need for donations is always there.”

County shelters saw more people seeking beds at the start of last week. According to county officials, 321 people spent Monday night, Jan. 6, at four shelters in Montgomery County—compared with 300 the night before.

Montgomery County provides funding for homeless shelters, but the shelters are run by nonprofits.

Charlotte Garvey Corbett, an Outreach manager for Rockville-based nonprofit Interfaith Works, said one of the shelters it operates in Silver Spring was over capacity on Jan. 6, at 70 people.

“But it wasn’t way over capacity, which we were little surprised about,” Corbett said.

She said that sometimes the complexities of homelessness, the mental health issues, addictions and other fears create anxieties among those who might benefit from a shelter.

“Some people have figured out ways to cope on the street,” Corbett said.

Interfaith Works is a non-denominational social service agency based in Rockville. It runs Interfaith Clothing Center, which provides clothing and home goods to residents with low incomes free of charge. Interfaith Works also has a “wish list” of commonly needed items—things the community can donate.

Before the coldest weather arrived last week, Montgomery County’s street outreach program—which is made up of People Encouraging People Homeless, Outreach, Bethesda Cares, Interfaith Works Community Vision and the City of Gaithersburg—hit the streets encouraging people who were homeless to take refuge.

Montgomery County police went to known enclaves to encourage people to come out of the cold, county officials said.

Also, since it’s winter season, the county’s emergency shelters—the Men’s Emergency Shelter (Home Builders Care Assessment Center) at 600B E. Gude Drive in Rockville and Rainbow Place for women, at 215 W. Montgomery Ave. in Rockville—were instructed to accept anyone who showed up, no referral needed.

“Home Builders Care Assessment Center actually increased their capacity significantly during this time in order to provide at least a place to stay for adult men who are homeless,” said Carlos Aparicio, who is the City of Rockville’s Community Services Manager. “During the winter specifically, they actually open it up so that nobody's out in the cold, in harm's way. They provide a place for them to sleep.”

Aparicio was talking about what’s known as the county’s hypothermia plan. Typically, shelters are open overnight and closed during they day. But when the forecast is 32 degrees or less, emergency shelters are asked to let people stay inside during the day, according to Anderson.

Temperatures early last week ranged from just under 10 degrees to barely in the teens—even colder once wind chill was factored in, according to state climate data.

There have been six weather-related deaths in Maryland so far this winter, in the city of Baltimore and in Prince George’s, Worcester and Baltimore counties, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Last Friday’s forecast for Rockville called for highs in the 40s, with springlike highs in the 60s on Saturday.

On any given night, about 1,000 people are homeless in Montgomery County, according to statistics provided by Corbett.

“It can be hard for people to think that Montgomery County has homeless individuals,” Anderson said. “In many ways, we're a very well-off county, but I think it's issues like this [the recent cold weather] that remind us that even in the midst of all of this wealth in our community we still have people who are very vulnerable.”

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