With the wind-chill expected to drop into the single digits overnight Monday, volunteer James Murphy began making preparations to house nearly triple the normal number of homeless at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission.
Cumberland and Cape May counties declared a “Code Blue” for Monday and Tuesday nights for the first time this winter to open warming centers at churches and public buildings for people who needed overnight shelter and a meal. While Atlantic City had made no such formal declaration by 4 p.m., the mission was making plans to house those in need anyway.
Murphy, 72, of Atlantic City, was prepared to convert the cafeteria at the mission into a dormitory to accommodate 108 sleeping mats. More mats would go in hallways and classrooms and wherever else there was space to shelter as many as 275 people who come to the center when it gets too cold. The mission suspends its stricter residency rules during severe cold snaps so people who typically are ineligible to stay are welcome, the Rev. Bill Warner, of Absecon, said.
“Even if people are removed from the mission for an infraction, they can come back,” Warner said.
Pete Dalzell and his family make a big trip up to Vermont every year to ski the blue-, green…
Bobby Barley, 55, a recovering alcoholic from Atlantic City, is staying at the Rescue Mission on Bacharach Boulevard this month. He receives disability benefits for a foot injury that requires him to rely on a cane. He said the mission rescued him after he sank into depression and began drinking late last month. Now he’s taking his prescribed antidepressants and has a better outlook, he said.
Barley said some chronically homeless people in Atlantic City are not willing or able to seek help to get off the streets.
“One thing I learned is for a lot of people, that’s where they want to be. They’re not trying to get better. If you’re drinking or drugging, you can’t come here,” he said.
In Cumberland County, a Code Blue is activated when temperatures are forecast to drop to 25 degrees or below with no precipitation for at least two consecutive nights. The code can also be implemented in temperatures of 32 degrees or below with snow or freezing rain.
The First United Methodist Church in Vineland made plans to help the needy on Monday.
“They steal my heart,” volunteer coordinator Cathy Gardner said.
The winter so far has been unseasonably warm, but Gardner said her church was prepared for the cold snap. Church leaders have been monitoring the weather since Nov. 1. After a warmup later this week, another bout of freezing temperatures is forecast for next week.
“This is what we do,” she said.
Cumberland County made several changes to its Code Blue plan this winter. Gardner explained that this is the first year all three of the main cities within the county will operate their codes under the M25 initiative, a system that has been adopted by each, unifying the county’s Code Blue. Within this system, Gardner said all donated funds go into one account and are distributed to Vineland, Bridgeton and Millville as needed.
“The biggest thing is that now all three cities will be consistent,” she said. “We are all getting airport security wands this year to help make sure the centers are safe, and each volunteer will also be getting a cell phone, to keep us in communication.”
Gardner said the dinner menu featured dishes such as baked ziti, chili, green bean casserole and salad. As of Monday afternoon, she was unsure how many she people to expect. With Social Security income checks being recently issued, many might opt to rent a motel room. And some of last winter’s homeless population likely found housing, she said.
“If they can get themselves up and get a job and a place to stay, that is the ultimate goal,” she said.
Warming centers are open at St. Andrews Episcopal Church at 186 E. Commerce St. in Bridgeton and at Central Baptist Church at 9 N. Second St. in Millville.
Vineland's warming center will be open 6 p.m to 9 p.m at First United Methodist Church at 700 East Landis Ave. and then will continue through the night at the Church of Resurrection at Eighth and Wood streets.
Warner has been volunteering at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission since his wife of 27 years, Ora, died in 2008. He said helping other people makes him feel less lonely. And the need for food and shelter remains great, he said.
“More than ever, we need to get people back on their feet,” he said.
State Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, has introduced a bill that would require all counties to come up with a plan for sheltering at-risk people in dangerously cold weather.
The bill would make these emergency-response policies more consistent statewide and establish a designated threshold to enact the response measures.
“The temperature varies in the counties that have it. Here it is around 40 degrees, but up north in some places it is 15. We would make it 40 degrees everywhere.” he said. “If it was me and my family and it was 40 degrees, we would be cold and looking for shelter.”
Those wishing to volunteer in Cumberland County during the Code Blue are urged to sign up at www.codeblueccnj.org.