BRIDGETON — All Joseph L. Hanshaw wanted Monday was a coat or a warm place to sleep through a very cold night, city police believe.
Instead, the 50-year-old died after becoming entangled in the pull-down door of a Salvation Army clothing bin at Commerce Street and Mayor Aitken Drive, according to police and Salvation Army officials.
Hanshaw’s death occurred as city officials said they were developing a plan to use churches and volunteers to start warming centers — but not full shelters — where the homeless could spend a cold night. Mayor Albert Kelly said Hanshaw’s death prompted the city to start using St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in the 100 block of Commerce Street on Tuesday night as a temporary warming center until a full program is in place.
“This is a situation that we’re trying to prevent — people dying needlessly because of the cold weather,” Kelly said.
City police said the Hanshaw situation appears to be “unfortunate and tragic.”
But with that city’s warming center program still in the planning stages, Hanshaw’s ill-fated attempt to stay warm was apparently one of desperation: Asked what options Hanshaw had, Capt. James Stephenson of the local Salvation Army branch said, “None.”
“We have a number of people who are looking for a warm place,” Stephenson said. “Cumberland County does not have a no-freeze policy in effect. Perhaps this will be a jump-off point for one.”
Cumberland County Freeholder Director Joseph Derella said the county’s Office of Homeless Prevention has for some time discussed creating a program to give the homeless a place to stay in cold weather. The stumbling blocks continue to be finding a facility, staffing it and funding its operations, he said.
City police said they received a report at 11 p.m. Monday about a man dangling from a clothing collection bin at the local Salvation Army facility.
Police said they arrived to find Hanshaw trapped by the hinged door used to access the interior of the clothing bin. Police Chief Mark Ott said Hanshaw was “trapped from the armpits up.”
Police said it took several minutes to dismantle the door mechanism and free Hanshaw. Members of the city’s Fire Department worked to save Hanshaw and eventually transported him to Inspira Medical Center Vineland, police and Fire Chief David E. Schoch said.
Hanshaw was pronounced dead at the medical center, police said. A cause of death was not available.
The clothing bins were removed from the Salvation Army facility Tuesday for what Stephenson said were safety reasons.
City police listed Hanshaw’s address as the 200 block of South Avenue.
However, Stephenson said he believed Hanshaw was homeless. He said he would see Hanshaw at the Salvation Army facility when it gave out bread and soda on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and coffee and doughnuts on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Stephenson said that, after two relatively mild winters, the Salvation Army here is encountering a growing number of people seeking to get warm as temperatures have dropped below freezing even before the official start of winter. He said the facility is in dire need of coats to help those people.
“This (December) is particularly cold,” he said.
Low temperatures in Bridgeton are expected to be in the teens for the next several nights, according to the National Weather Service.
Kelly said the city plans to find locations and volunteers for warming or hospital centers. Each center can, under state guidelines, handle as many as 14 people and remain open for as long as 14 consecutive days, he said. The warming centers are easier to open than full shelters, which require various permits and must meet stringent state regulations, he said.
Kelly said he plans to share information on the city’s warming center program with other interested municipalities.
While Cumberland County has no warming center program, Derella said, it operates a shelter on Mays Landing Road in Vineland for the homeless and others, such as persons involved in domestic violence. He said there are about 55 people currently in the shelter.
But interviews are needed before a person is admitted, and people with certain violations, such as involving welfare, are banned, Derella said. He also admitted that a lack of good public transportation makes getting to the shelter difficult for some people.
The county is allocating $18,000 this year to help the homeless pay for motel and hotel rooms, he said.
Atlantic County government spokeswoman Linda Gilmore said the county operates no warming centers. The Atlantic City Rescue Mission generally provides that type of service, she said.
During periods of extreme cold, the Atlantic City Office of Emergency Management will declare a code blue and warn the homeless to seek shelter. The designation funnels additional resources to the Rescue Mission. Police are authorized to provide transportation to the shelter.
In Cape May County, government buildings such as libraries, recreation and senior citizen centers are open as warming and cooling center during regular business hours, county spokeswoman Lenora Boninfante said. She said she did not know of any centers that might open overnight.
She also said there are a number of entities in the county that help with food and clothing. County social services also provides those in need with vouchers that help them find some place to live, “especially when it’s very cold,” she said.
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