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Even on a brutally cold day, helping WNY's homeless isn't always easy

Recent subzero temperatures filled the city’s three Code Blue shelters to capacity with 146 homeless men and women. Many of them were transported by an outreach van that patrols 18 locations downtown, said Jean Bennett, director of housing and homeless services for the Restoration Society, an organization that deals with issues of mental health, substance abuse and homelessness.

While most of the occupants enter the overnight shelter voluntarily, a few people were ordered to the shelter by the police.

“The first time we dropped below zero, we had to call Crisis Services and the police for two people because they refused to come in," Bennett said. "If someone chooses to stay outside when it’s this cold, they are not stable. It was a mandatory bring-in."

The death of Lawrence Bierl, 69, a homeless man whose body was found Thursday morning in a Williamsville bus shelter, illustrated the danger of exposure to extreme cold. On social media, it also led to questions about and criticism of the response to homelessness in the community.

It is the reason behind Code Blue legislation, passed in 2016 to protect homeless people during extreme weather conditions.

Code Blue's outreach van patrols city streets nightly stopping under bridges and at abandoned buildings and churches frequented by Buffalo’s homeless population. It targets the downtown corridor and makes stops on the east and west sides, said Nadia Pizarro, outreach coordinator for Code Blue.

In the suburbs, Code Blue uses a different tactic to target the significantly smaller homeless population, but they encountered difficulty locating Bierl.

"When we see a storm coming we attempt to engage homeless individuals. Apparently [Bierl] was staying in the woods. We couldn’t figure out where he was actually sleeping, but previous contacts with him were at the Tony Walker Center. They even followed footprints from the bus stop. Where he slept was a big secret," said Pizarro.

On one earlier occasion, Bierl was located by an outreach worker at the Walker Center.

"We had one man on his own looking for him. He found him, but he refused assistance and ran away. He told the worker he had been homeless for 32 years. We did everything we possibly could for him."

Williamsville mourns Larry, a man with no home but many ties to the village

“They’re basically checking where people have been known to stay,” said Pizarro. “We let people know ahead of time that in the case of subzero weather, they were required to come in to the shelter for their health and safety. If they did not, we would call the police. We wanted to transport people in the least traumatizing way. In circumstances of extreme cold we have to intervene.”

In 2018, 673 homeless people in Erie County lived in shelters and transitional housing, said Dale Zuchlewski, executive director of Homeless Alliance of Western New York. Included in that number are individuals with severe mental illness. Nine of the homeless lived outside, Zuchlewski added.

“It’s a difficult population to group everyone together in one place. Ninety nine percent of the homeless people live in Buffalo because services are concentrated in the city,” said Zuchlewski.

Code Blue provides outreach, transportation, shelter and a warm meal on evenings when temperatures and wind chill fall to 32 degrees or below. The emergency safety plan serves the homeless population and operates from Nov. 15 to March 15. When Code Blue is called, shelters open and the outreach van is dispatched to run between 8 and 11 p.m.

Last year, Code Blue served nearly 600 people. It is funded by the City of Buffalo, Erie County, National Fuel and Rich Products, which donated the outreach van. Shelters are located at: St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, 325 Walden Ave.; Harbor House, 241 Genesee St.; and Holy Cross Church, 412 Niagara St.

During a Code Blue alert, women and children may go only to Salvation Army on Main Street or other family shelters in the city. Homeless women may stay at Holy Cross, where they are separated from the male population by folding tables.

A man sleeps on a cot in the shelter at Holy Cross Church. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

On Wednesday, 57 homeless men and women spent the night on cots set up in the Holy Cross community building on Maryland Street off Niagara. It was the second night of a Code Blue storm alert. Overnight occupants normally are required to vacate the premises by 8 a.m. the following morning, but in extreme weather conditions they are encouraged to stay through the following day.

On Thursday the group stayed, and by midmorning some were settled into games of cards or dominoes while others chose to watch TV. Breakfast bowls of Cheerios remained available on a banquet table.

Glenese Hart, 62, was never homeless until seven months ago. The slight man wears four layers of clothing and a wool hat that looks like a zebra.

"I lived on Heath Street for 27 years," Hart said. "They evicted a family member so I had to move in six weeks. Thank God we have centers like this. I’m homeless, but I’m alive."

The shelter is staffed by three workers from Restoration Society with Bennett in charge. When asked about the age range of the Code Blue clients, Bennett said: “Take a look around. This year, we have had a shockingly high number of elderly people. We’ve had an 84-year-old utilize Code Blue services this year which is unusual and horrifically sad. A number of people well over 70 regularly take part in Code Blue. We’re also seeing an increased amount of young people – ages 18, 19, 20.”

As Bennett spoke, clients mopped the floors and wiped down the table. A smell of bleach and Lysol filled the air.

Every two hours, a cigarette break is announced with about half the occupants pulling on coats and hats to trudge up the stairs and out the door. On normal days of operation, each person would receive a bus pass, but with the Central Library closed, and the bus station not allowing people to stay all day, there were no bus passes.

One by one, they approached Bennett for bus passes. This was her answer:

“I would encourage you not to go anywhere. You don’t have anywhere to go. It’s minus 26 wind chill. You have sneakers on? You are certainly not dressed for the weather, so I don’t want to see you wandering around.

“Here’s the goal: Everybody stays safe, and nobody freezes to death in this.”

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