CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - Charlotte homeless shelters are adding emergency beds and advocates are scouring the streets to make sure people get inside as a dangerous cold snap approaches.
Sub-freezing temperatures Wednesday night hinted at the harsher weather ahead, with temperatures expected to drop New Year's Eve and stay cold through early next week. The National Weather Service is talking lows in the teens and "prolonged dangerously cold conditions" that could turn life on the street from uncomfortable to life-threatening.
Advocates for the homeless say the public can help, whether that means congregations taking on extra nights of providing shelter or individuals giving sleeping bags, blankets and towels.
About 130 houses of worship and other partners work with the Urban Ministry Center's Room In The Inn program to provide beds and meals for people who can't get into shelters. Hosts generally commit to one night a week from December to March, with 80 to more than 200 people staying in the temporary shelters each night.
On Thursday morning, coordinator Paul Hanneman emailed to see if any hosts could add a night to get more people inside during the cold spell. It's not as simple as throwing open the doors; each host has to marshal a squad of volunteers to set up beds, prepare meals and supervise guests.
"It takes an enormous amount of effort to get something like this organized, particularly on a holiday weekend," Hanneman said.
Thursday afternoon, with the temperature just above freezing and expected to drop fast after dark, dozens of people carrying their belongings in backpacks, shopping bags and small suitcases lined up outside outside Urban Ministry in hopes of getting a spot to spend the night. Most were adults, but a few had small children. Erika Robinson and Jedida Blaise, with 1 1/2-year-old Nivayah, said they spend the day at ImaginOn library and turn to Room In The Inn at night while trying to get into housing.
The Salvation Army Center of Hope, which provides shelter for women and children, and the Men's Shelter of Charlotte are adding cots and mattresses to squeeze in more people. The Center of Hope, which has 360 beds, was full Wednesday night, with seven people sleeping in the dining room and more expected to arrive as the temperature drops.
Meanwhile, Allison Winston heads a team of four street outreach workers from Urban Ministry who are tracking down "the hard-core campers" – people who normally shun shelters – to let them know about the extended options and the importance of getting inside. They offer to drive people to shelters or the Room In The Inn sign-up, and if all else fails, they offer heavy blankets, sleeping bags and anything else they can provide to protect people from hypothermia and frostbite.
Even though Mecklenburg County has worked to expand long- and short-term alternatives to living on the street, many still sleep in urban camps and on uptown benches, Winston said. Reasons include mental illness, fear of shelters and attachment to pets that can't get into shelters.
"It seems like every time we clean off one bench because we've housed them, it fills up with new people," Winston said.
A coalition of government and private agencies are tracking conditions. If the cold gets too intense – generally a sustained wind chill factor of 10 degrees for 24 hours – and all the extended shelter options fall short, the county could open Grady Cole Center for emergency shelter, said Peter Safir, Mecklenburg County's homeless services director.
Here's what's available and how people can help.
Urban Ministry Center
The center at 945 N. College St., which does not provide night shelter, is extending its hours this weekend to provide a place for people to stay warm during the day.
The street outreach team needs sleeping bags, heavy blankets, hand warmers and thermal gloves and socks to distribute to people who live outside during winter weather. Bring donations to the center, or email Allison Winston, email@example.com.
Winston also asks that anyone who knows of a homeless person at risk in Mecklenburg County notify her team using a referral form that's available at UrbanMinistryCenter.org under "street outreach."
More information: 704-347-0278, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Center of Hope
The Salvation Army shelter at 534 Spratt St., which provides shelter, meals and support services for women and children, is not turning anyone away during the winter emergency. Director Deronda Metz says the agency needs new or gently used towels and washcloths to prepare for the overflow crowd (a hotel just donated blankets).
But most of all, Metz said, cash donations help cover the cost of adding staff, making more food and otherwise stretching the building to its limits.
The shelter, at 1210 N. Tryon St., is adding temporary beds to handle overflow demand for shelter during the cold.
More information: www.mensshelterofcharlotte.org, 704-334-3187.
Homeless Resource Center
Mecklenburg County's center provides a place for congregations to serve meals and for people to get out of the weather. Hours are limited; check www.mecknc.gov/CommunitySupportServices/HomelessServices for the schedule.