NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Kathy Gallis considers herself one of the luckier guests at the city’s warming center.
She has a social security check, a smartphone, and a hotel to stay at for at least a few days.
But the check is only a few hundred dollars, and the Sayreville hotel Gallis stays at charges $75 a night.
It’s easy to burn through the money quickly, and she’s come to depend on whatever social services the city has to offer.
“When the money’s gone, if I don’t have a place like this, I’m screwed,” Gallis said as she made her way down the porch of the Henry Guest House, next to the New Brunswick Free Public Library.
Since just after Christmas, the city’s been using the guest house as a warming center for New Brunswick’s neediest residents.
With Code Blue in effect, the homeless of New Brunswick are allowed to take refuge in the guest house during the city’s snowiest or coldest nights.
Residents like Gallis have come to depend on a patchwork of services from the city; between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. they can stay at the guest house, or whatever hallways and storage rooms are available at the police station.
Gallis was one of the last to leave the warming center just after 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning. She sported whatever jackets and sweaters she could fit on herself as she prepared to make her way to the bus station bound for Sayreville.
“This is a nice place to be. The bathrooms are clean. The people are not too grouchy,” Gallis said. “But in the morning, everyone’s hurried to get out as early as they can.”
During the daytime, many of those guests make their way to the Elijah’s Promise Community Kitchen, at the corner of Neilson Street and Commercial Avenue.
There, they’re treated to meals and shelter from the cold. On Friday afternoon, the main lounge was packed with guests; three or four to a table and hardly any empty seats left.
This is how it’s been since the cold wave started on Dec. 26, according to Paul Burricelli, a staffer for Elijah’s Promise; many of the guests would stay at the kitchen all day.
When asked if this had put a strain on the staff and resources of Elijah’s Promise, Burricelli’s response was nonchalant: “Eh, not really.”
“We go through this every year, I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Burricelli said.
Code Blue used to be done at the Elijah’s Promise kitchen, Burricelli said, but the city stepped in to provide the warming center.
“They were threatening to close us down, it’s a restaurant, you’re not supposed to have people sleeping on the floor in a restaurant,” Burricelli said.
Burricelli and his colleagues do everything they can to get the residents off the streets during the coldest winter months.
If it’s cold, guests will find a place to warm up, one way or another, and they almost always come to Elijah’s Promise.
One guest, who declined to be named, called Elijah’s Promise a “godsend.” Even though he had a roof over his head at a nearby homeless shelter, the heating had broken, and the subsequent cold was unbearable.
The hope is that if the heating isn’t fixed by the weekend, he’ll spend the weekend alternating between Elijah’s Promise and Henry’s Guest House.
The food, for many, is a huge added bonus; there’s virtually nowhere else in the city to get a free meal, or catch up on some uninterrupted rest.
For Ken Schnorrbusch, a longtime New Brunswick resident who’s spent six months in a homeless shelter and two months on the streets, the attitude has been that the homeless simply aren’t welcome in the city.
“I understand, when people see homeless people and they get scared,” Schnorrbusch said.
But on the flipside, many people have come together for people like himself.
“I can’t get any more coats or glove or hats because I don’t need them, I can’t carry them,” Schnorrbusch said. “I’ve been given so much.”
Schnorrbusch sat with two other guests at a table at the end of the room. Behind him were several bags of materials meant to keep him warm; blankets, pillows, gloves and other supplies.
A cold wave of this length is a first for him, and he’s not always so lucky to find a place to keep warm.
“I have to sleep on the street at less than 20 degrees,” Schnorrbusch said. “I have an army sleeping blanket or I would’ve frozen to death.”
Some of the homeless have tried their luck seeking warm shelter during the day at the city library, the Rutgers campus centers or the hospital lobbies, all to varying and sometimes limited degrees of success.
“Even in the hospital, you can’t hang around in the lobby, you can’t hang around in the waiting room area, they chase you out,” Gallis said.
One of the other guests sitting declined to be named, as he picked at a Boston Creme Donut taken from a large tray filled with dozens of donuts.
Another guest, Donna Russell, had a bus ticket “waiting for her,” from Newark Penn Station to South Carolina, where her son lives.
She’s spent the last two years in New Brunswick, alternating between whatever place she could get into.
For the past week, Russell and Schnorrbusch have followed the same schedule: out of the warming center by 7 a.m., walk around New Brunswick until they get into Elijah’s Promise at 9 a.m. and get in line at 6 p.m. for a spot in the warming center.
Getting a cot at Henry’s Guest House is hard. The line forms just before 6 p.m. and you wait around for an hour before doors open.
“Last week, I went to the shelter, they said come at 7 p.m., I came at 7:30 p.m., because they said come between 7 and 9 p.m., I come at 7:30 p.m. and they turn me away,” Schnorrbusch said.
Many times, guests will cut in line. On more than one occasion, verbal arguments would ensue and fist fights would nearly break out.
“You’re frozen by the time you get in because you’re standing, you’re not walking around, you’re just standing,” Schnorrbusch said.
Still, Schnorrbusch and Russell admitted that they were arguably “spoiled.” Constant access to food and a roof over their head has been admittedly hard to come by.
The frigid weather and subsequent Code Blue’s are expected to continue through the weekend. Weather predictions call for dangerously cold temperatures with wind chills at 15 below 0.
If the mercury doesn’t go above freezing until Monday, that could mean a 12-day streak of frigid cold, a record New Brunswick hasn’t reached in decades.
Burricelli said he’s confident and prepared; this is something he’s done every year.
Soon enough, the thermometer will reach the 40’s, and the blanket of snow will melt away.