Cold weather drives homeless people to shelters

12/05/2013 10:43 AM

12/05/2013 3:58 PM

As he watched the Presbyterian Night Shelter fill up during a cold snap two weekends ago, Toby Owen said his mind conjured images of a week in February 2011.

“The last time we were at full capacity, including our overflow beds, was when we had the big freeze during the Super Bowl,” said Owen, the shelter’s executive director.

Super Bowl XLV ushered in a thick sheet of ice and snow that virtually shut down North Texas for a few days. Managers at agencies devoted to serving the homeless said it takes such a storm to force some people to abandon their tents for the protection of Fort Worth’s three shelters.

In recent nights, there have been more than 100 beds still open when the last shelter guests get settled, said Cindy Crain, executive director of Tarrant County Homeless Coalition.

But with the overnight arrival of an arctic cold front that brought frigid temperatures and freezing rain, that will likely change for the next few days.

People who can’t get out of the weather will suffer, said Dennis Cavanaugh, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.

“Being outside in the cold is one thing. But when it’s rainy and cold it’s very difficult to stay warm. Water takes heat away from your body exponentially more than just cold temperature will. The key there is to have some way to keep yourself dry,” Cavanaugh said.

With an ice storm on its way, Crain speculated that the 567 beds at the night shelter, Union Gospel Mission and Salvation Army might be overwhelmed. If so, the city has contingency plans that would deal with overflow.

The city is ready to open an emergency shelter that could be at any of the community centers, said Otis Thornton, Fort Worth’s homelessness program director.

At the top of the list is Bertha Collins Community Center, 1501 Martin Luther King N. Freeway, (U.S. 287), Thornton said.

“It’s in this kind of soccer field complex, across 287 from Butler Housing,” Thornton said.

It’s also close to the area of East Lancaster Avenue in the homeless district.

Once Thornton’s office is notified that the shelters are approaching capacity, a team from Parks and Community Services will be sent to the community center to get it warmed up, set up beds and other accommodations and get ready to spend the night taking care of their guests.

The Fort Worth Transportation Authority will send buses to the shelters to pick up folks and take them to the center, Thornton said. Fort Worth police will provide security.

The other option is a program that’s been helping people in Fort Worth for six years, said Bruce Frankel, a spokesman for the Day Resource Center.

Room In The Inn is a safety valve for the shelters,” Frankel said. “During the cold weather months and the months of extreme heat, churches coordinate with the Day Resource Center to have five to 15 men or women stay overnight.”

The 24 congregations in the program are committed to hosting homeless people one day a week, Frankel said.

The guests get a good meal, fellowship, a good night’s sleep and “a big dose of self-respect that helps them become more motivated to get out of homelessness,” Frankel said. “The members of congregations get a whole new understanding of the people who are homeless.”

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