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Operation Code Blue van, shelters help more of Buffalo's homeless as temperatures plummet

A team of agencies that work for the benefit of Buffalo's homeless population quickly got together Wednesday for the second Operation Code Blue night of the season.

A Code Blue night is called when the overnight temperature drops to 15 degrees or below, or if the sustained wind chill reaches that temperature, according Joyelle Tedeschi, director of the Matt Urban Hope Center on Paderewski Drive.

That's when the Hope Center's 15-passenger van goes into action, scooping up members of the city's homeless population, ferrying them to one of three shelters for the night.

"When we were in need of a van again for Code Blue, at 8 o'clock, it turns into the Code Blue van. It goes throughout the City of Buffalo and picks up individuals who need a warming shelter and takes them to one of our three (shelters), St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, the Matt Urban Hope Center and Harbor House," Tedeschi said.

Tedeschi and Drew Bernstein, Code Blue supervisor for St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, said demand for the services of the Code Blue Van and the shelters starts out slow and increases as the winter season wears on.

Bernstein said St. Luke's provided shelter to 18 people the first night of Code Blue, but that number increased to about 50 Wednesday night.

"Given the combination of the snow and the cold, it's no surprise the numbers shot up. I would not be surprised if tonight (Thursday night) would be even higher," he said.

Capacity at the St. Luke's is 50, but in an emergency, the agency will attempt to squeeze in a few more people.

"We try to find space for everyone, even if that means seating some a table to lie their heads on for the night in order to escape the cold," Bernstein added.

Tedeschi said the Hope Center housed about 15 people on Wednesday night. She said it was not difficult for the Homeless Outreach Team to track down those who needed a place to escape the cold for the a night.

"Our Homeless Outreach Team is a year-round team whose job is to find individuals in all the encampments and all the places they might sleep, engage them and help them find housing. The advantage is our team, along with our colleagues at Lakeshore and the Veterans Homeless Outreach League, know where these individuals are. So there are keys that we're going to stop (at), the NFTA bus station downtown and some of the downtown park areas and there are certain encampments we know we're going to hit, and where we want to check on people," Tedeschi said.

"We pick up anywhere between 30 to 50 (people) per night. We work closely with the NFTA. The NFTA allows that anyone who is going to St. Luke's may ride the 8 o'clock bus down Sycamore Street that takes you down to Walden Avenue. They will let individuals get on. One of outreach workers is down there to help gather people to say, 'get on this bus and get off on Walden,' and that's a free ride to get to our station. That helps tremendously because, otherwise, as you can imagine with one 15-passenger van how many trips that would be to get all those individuals when that can be done in one shot," she added.

The three-year-old Matt Urban Homeless Outreach van was out of commission for a couple of hours Thursday for repairs because of the amount of use it gets. The van was purchased through donations from the City of Buffalo, M&T Bank and B.J.'s Wholesale. In the past, Tedeschi said, members of the outreach team used their own vehicles, which was not an efficient way to ferry the homeless to the shelters.

"Code Blue nights we have three outreach workers, one stationed down at the NFTA and two in the van, one driving and one helping navigate people getting on the van. We have our coordinator who is coordinating with all three sites to make sure the van is getting everywhere, and that everyone has what they need. At the shelter itself, we have three to four staff on from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. to make sure everyone is safe and has what they need while they're staying with us overnight," Tedeschi said.

"It's a collaborative effort. We came together to figure this out, because one agency will never solve a problem like homelessness by itself," she added.

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