Early spring may still bring some surprises, but most expect the Code Blue nights and the first year of a new program for the homeless are over for the winter in Cape May County.
This winter, responsibility for managing the Code Blue response shifted from the county to municipalities. Code Blue is called when those staying outside may be in danger, when temperatures drop below 25 degrees, or below 32 if there is rain, snow or other precipitation. Cape May County has struggled to find a lasting answer to homelessness, even while awareness of the extent of the problems grows.
“It went pretty well for the first year,” said Middle Township Mayor Timothy Donohue. “We didn’t have a heck of a lot of time to figure it all out.”
For years, Cape May County offered vouchers for a motel stay on the coldest nights. This year, the county reimbursed the municipalities expected to see the most impact.
The county spent $65,000 on the program to reimburse the municipalities most impacted by the change. That included $25,000 to Middle Township, $20,000 to Lower Township, and another $20,000 to be divided among the Wildwoods.
Middle Township Committeeman Michael Clark added this winter was relatively mild, which meant fewer Code Blue nights.
Donohue, and county officials, say Middle Township saw by far the most impact from the change. The township made a deal with Cape Community Church on Route 9 to take in homeless people when county officials declared Code Blue.
According to county officials, between four and 12 individuals required shelter on each Code Blue night. There was room for 12 at the Cape Community Church.
According to Donohue, Middle had an agreement with Lower Township, which had its own warming center, to accept overflow if the Middle warming center exceeded capacity. No one from Lower Township responded to a request for comment.
Cape Community Church Pastor Brad Boyer said the first year went well and that his church will likely participate next year. Those in need of a warming center could stay overnight at the church hall, with volunteers staying as well. There was hot soup, bread and coffee as well.
“It went great,” he said. “I really don’t have any negatives.”
He said community members donated the food and described an outpouring of help as neighbors and church members learned about the warming center.
Boyer said the county provided cots and transportation, while the municipality did a good job.
“All we had to do was really open the doors,” he said.
Transportation was key, according to Donohue, getting people to the warming center and back.
That usually meant returning individuals to Rio Grande, to the outreach center The Branches at 1204 Route 47, which is about three and a half miles from the church and opened early on Code Blue mornings.
Under a contract with the township, the church received a stipend of $200 a night, plus reimbursement of the cost of utilities, Boyer said.
This winter, the county sponsored a seminar with an expert in homelessness, met with community members, including homeless individuals, and worked on creating a Homeless Trust Fund Advisory Board.
The Homeless Trust Fund comes from a fee on certain transactions in the Cape May County Clerk’s Office and is put aside specifically to assist the homeless. The fund brings in about $75,000 a year. The next step will be to figure out the best way to spend it.
According to county officials, around 30 organizations participated in the discussion on what the county should do with the money.
“Dialogue is so important through this entire process,” said Freeholder Jeff Pierson, liaison to Health and Human Services for the county governing body. “We are trying to do a lot of listening to see what we can do with the resources we do have. This isn’t something we can fix overnight, but we are committed to looking at whatever options are available to us.”