Editor's Note: On Sunday, Camden city announced it would add a warming center.

CAMDEN, NJ — The temperatures Wednesday were in the mid-40s around 1 p.m. and yet Mack Elijah Williams, 68, still bundled up with a brick-red jacket, khakis, gloves and a scarf.

Williams is a guest at Joseph’s House - a shelter for the homeless and others in need in the city. With seven hours to go until he would gain admittance (the non-profit allows guests to stay from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.) he worked to clean up the perimeter of Atlantic Avenue.

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“I’ve been here for going on two months now, they have clean beds, good food,” Williams told TAPinto Camden. “Anything helps….and I don’t have much with me, just a bag with mostly clothes, so I don’t need much space.”

“Sometimes they let us in a little earlier,” he continued, “but the weather's not so bad today,”

The previous night that wasn’t the case. Temperatures dipped into the low 30s, enough for the county to issue a “Code Blue.”

The designation is triggered during particularly freezing nights, with county officials warning about the dangers of over-exposure to the cold. In the latest Code Blue, Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez reminded locals to check in on neighbors that live alone, the elderly or handicapped, as well as anyone that may be forced to brave the night without heat or electricity.

People in need of a place to stay are directed to city services, which the municipality is required to provide. However, among the 20 warming centers (listed on the county website) Camden city does not appear. 

Gary Samuels, an advocate in Camden, has sounded the alarm on a lack of warming centers for years ad nauseam, he says.

“My concern is we may have deaths on our hands,” Samuels said. “I think about the during the day too, should the Code Blue not extend for the day if temperatures are still low? When it’s a regular cold day, Newark and Philadelphia have places for the homeless to go. Places they can just walk in. To take a shower, to wash their clothes.”

“We see people reach out in need of those services every day, it hasn’t slowed down. In fact it’s up,” said Samuels, who donates his time to help the homeless through local organization, New Beginnings Behavioral Health Services.

Work in progress for the city

City spokesman Vincent Basara said some churches and centers ordinarily available throughout Camden have been reluctant to provide as many services this fall due to COVID-19 concerns - in some cases since many volunteers are older, thus more vulnerable to contract the virus.

Keith Walker, Office of Emergency Management (OEM) coordinator, noted that last week his office learned that three of the five locations typically available during a Code Blue or other emergency, would not be in service amid health woes.

Now, Walker said he is in the process surveying new options to provide the services. He said he could not disclose where as the RFP process is still ongoing.

“During the pandemic, your attendance in facilities helping with Code Blues are also either reduced by 50% or 55% occupancy. So we have to procure more spaces for the same populations,” said Walker.

Walker did not clarify whether there was a specific number of locations the city plans to establish warming centers in. He did note that the plan is to have them up and running as soon as possible.

“It’s not just here. Everywhere within the state people are dealing with the challenges: buying additional resources, masks and gloves, spacing in facilities. You also need monies to procure proper sanitation, solvents, spray, sanitizers,” Walker continued. “We also have to make sure everybody follows CDC guidelines and is safe, including security and staff.”

The city said anyone in need could still opt for the Volunteers of America (VOA) and Joseph’s House during a Code Blue.

Both centers clarified that anyone who arrives at their shelters during Code Blues in need of help will be assisted. However, they won’t be staying there - due to a limit of space and over COVID-19 precautions.

“We’ve never been a drop-in warming center,” said Shawn Sheekey, the executive director of Joseph's House. “What we’ve been doing is calling the state homeless hotline at 211. On the first Code Blue night, two men came in and we worked to transport them to a motel to keep warm.”

Dan Sperrazza, a spokesman for Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, said that’s also the case there.

“VOADV does not currently operate a Code Blue shelter in the city of Camden. Our current emergency shelters have not participated for the past two years due to the number of individuals already housed,” Sperrazza said. “We do help provide transportation or refer individuals to Code Blue shelters should they need a warming center.”

Sheekey and Sperrazza emphasized that their goal remains to help those in Camden in most need amid these difficult times. 

Funds possibly available

In mid-November New Jersey Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson announced it would provide counties with $2.5 million to support initiatives to help homeless people amid freezing and dangerous weather.

Camden County is said to receive $170,000. It is yet to be determined how the funds will be distributed and if they will benefit Camden City.

“The plans for putting funds into use are still being facilitated, but the county is continuing to seek ways to help the city meet obligations through this additional funding,” Kyle Sullender, External Affairs Manager for Camden County, said over the phone.

The funds are being awarded as a result of a new law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in January.

Before, Code Blues would be activated in New Jersey when temperatures dropped to 32 degrees or lower during precipitation (rain, snow, sleet, etc.) or 25 degrees or colder without precipitation.

The new law (S-3422 and S-3511) set the threshold at 32 degrees regardless of precipitation.

While planning continues, Samuels said he’s exasperated - continuing to help hundreds in need every week can’t help but feel like a temporary solution, he said.

“I know what it feels like to be out there. I was in the streets for years, breaking into abandoned buildings and doing what we could,” said Samuels, who has faced drug addiction and spent time in prison as well. “And this week, I see a hotel built on the waterfront while the homeless issue along with the severe opioid crisis are not being aggressively addressed by the city. To me, this reflects the direction Camden has been going concerning the city rising. Not for all, just for the waterfront area."

Ty Gadson, founder of Project Yield in Newark, says he frequently volunteers his time in Camden.

While the need is as prevalent here as in Newark, he says, there aren’t near the number of resources.

“Warming centers are something you have ready or start to plan to get there in early September or early October…it’s December” Gadson said. “And you need places for people to go during the day. When they don’t, they go out onto the street. To look for food, for clothes, to panhandle.”

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