WASHINGTON – Lanny Lancaster knows that bitter-cold weather means his Lexington Park homeless shelter will likely be filled to capacity this week.
“We are praying that this cold snap doesn’t last very long,” Lancaster said. But even if his Three Oaks Center gets too full, Lancaster said there is other shelter space in St. Mary’s County, so that no one should have to be out in the cold.
That confidence was echoed by social service agencies and shelters around the state, who said that at times like this they will go out of their way to see that everyone has a warm place to sleep.
“We probably won’t turn anyone away because we know how bad it (the weather) is going to be,” said Don Phillips, a board member for Winter Haven, a roving church-based shelter program in Laurel.
Phillips said anyone who comes to the 20-bed shelter will be squeezed in: Since the weather started getting colder two weeks ago, for example, Winter Haven has been housing about 23 to 29 people.
Across the state, freezing temperatures have triggered the implementation of emergency shelter plans that the state Department of Human Resources requires every county to have in place. In some counties, additional shelters open, and in others, social service agencies place the homeless in local motels. Using churches as shelter is another popular emergency housing plan.
But while local officials insist they are ready, some homeless advocates worry that there still will not be enough shelter space to get everyone in out of the cold.
Kevin Lindamood, director of Health Care for the Homeless, notes that people who needed shelter in Maryland were turned away 47,190 times in fiscal 2003, the most recent year for which numbers were available from the DHR. He said that number is probably low, since many people who hear about closures will not even bother going to a shelter to risk being turned away.
Lindamood calls the number of turn-aways “shocking,” but acknowledged that counties are doing the best they can.
Local officials did not dispute the annual turn-away numbers, but said the year-round figure does not reflect the special efforts they make in the winter.
“There are more beds available in during the winter than there are in April,” said Tim Jansen, executive director at Community Crisis Services, which manages overflow and bed placement in Prince George’s County.
He thinks most of the turn-aways probably come in the spring, when shelter resources shrink back to regular size.
Jansen also said friends and families are less likely to kick someone out of their homes during the winter.
“People tend to be more open and generous about keeping a family member inside in the winter,” he said.
The director of the Christian Shelter Inc. in Salisbury also said that resources generally have improved since last year, when beds filled up in early fall.
“People did slip though the cracks last year, but this year, because of what happened and the increased number of homeless people, we made up our mind that we were going to do something about it,” said Christian Shelter’s Jim Barnes.
Joseph House opened this winter, he said, and more churches near Salisbury have offered to pay for motel rooms this year than years in the past.
Still, Barnes said his shelter’s family rooms and men’s dorms are already full and he may not be able to accommodate everyone who comes to the door.
“We will probably have to turn people away,” he said.
But, like others, he was confident that those people will be referred to other emergency shelters, churches and crisis centers, like the Tri-County Alliance for the Homeless.
“There should be nobody who has to be out in the cold,” Barnes said.
Lindamood said some organizations are taking the next step, not just making space but reaching out. Baltimore has created shelters that do not turn away people who are drunk or on drugs, for example, while police and homeless advocates there will try to bring in mentally ill homeless people who might be scared to go to a shelter otherwise.
“It really is a matter of life and death,” Lindamood said.
-30- CNS 01-21-05