RIO GRANDE – Barb Alison, a volunteer at The Branches Outreach Center in Rio Grande, said it was an “eye-opening” experience trying to get homeless people out of the cold for more than a day at a time last week.
Alison said the county issued a Code Blue warning Jan. 5-8, then later added Jan. 9 as frigid temperatures continued. She said people who were trying to get shelter from the cold had to call the Homeless Hotline every night after 6 p.m., when the Code Blue went into effect.
“It was horrible,” Alison said in an interview this week. “They had to call every single night of the Code Blue to get a room again – even the same room. And they can’t call until 6 p.m.”
Alison said the Homeless Hotline center used to be located out of state, but it is now in Princeton. The hotline was apparently very busy over the weekend, she said. She said one evening someone called before 6 p.m. and was told to call back after 7 p.m.
Alison said she called the Homeless Hotline 10 times and it wouldn’t go through, often receiving a message saying the number was incorrect. She eventually got through on the same number. When she got through she was placed on hold for over an hour, she said.
Alison said at the time she was in a room with 10 or 15 people who needed a room to get out of the cold. She said most were sitting with their cell phones set on speaker, so the entire room filled was filled with music that plays when on hold. She said many of the people have limited minutes on their phones.
“Imagine if you have to be on hold for an hour each night for five nights – that’s 300 minutes used,” Alison said.
She said someone counted 72 minutes as passing before someone came on the line. Some people would get disconnected or hung up on, she said. Some were getting very frustrated, and some left, she said.
Alison said once someone answers the Homeless Hotline a representative asks them a series of questions, such as if they have AIDS, or were HIV positive, or had an alcohol drug problem.
“I don’t know what would happen if the person said yes,” Alison said.
The hotline representative would ask the caller how long they have been homeless and where they wanted to go. Then the caller would be placed on hold while the hotline called a hotel or motel to see if they would accept a voucher. Alison said in the event that place said no, or had no room, the hotline would ask the caller for a second choice.
“At the end of it all,” Alison said, “someone would say ‘I got a room,’ and the others would cheer for them.”
Alison said on Jan. 7, between 6 and 9 p.m., they were able to get rooms for 10 to 12 people.
“It was really eye-opening to see what it took to get a room,” Alison said.
Alison said there were several volunteers who spent 12 hours at The Branches on Sunday, Jan. 8, trying to help the homeless. She also worked at a warming center in West Wildwood, where guests are allowed to stay between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. the next day. She said no one showed up at the warming center during the Code Blue.
The forecast of below freezing temperatures with snow caused the Cape May County Office of Emergency Management to issue a Code Blue advisory for the county from Thursday, Jan. 5 through Monday, Jan. 9.
Emergency Management Communication Center Director Martin Pagliughi issued the advisory based on a forecast from the National Weather Service-Mt. Holly office. The county’s advisory came at around 8:30 a.m., Jan. 5, after the weather service said the temperature could reach 28 degrees Fahrenheit or lower with precipitation, and below 25 degrees Fahrenheit on the evening of Jan. 6 through the evening of Sunday, Jan. 8.
Pagliughi advised municipal leaders and others there might be a need for temporary sheltering during the advisory period. He advised that people needing temporary shelter in a warming center should contact their local municipality, and additional resources were available by calling the County Homeless Hot Line Service at 1-877-886-1325 or 609-886-1325.