Prince George’s homeless shelters face challenges in severe weather -- Gazette.Net


Record freezing temperatures in early January led to crowding at some Prince George’s County homeless shelters and compelled others to offer longer hours of service, officials said.

“We have had an expanded range of individuals calling into the hotline [this year] just in relation to the severe temperatures,“ said Laila Riazi, director of development for Community Crisis Services Inc., a nonprofit that handles Prince George’s County’s homeless shelter placements.

She said her agency processed 40,000 calls through the county’s Homeless Hotline last year and directed around 230 individuals to shelters, but the numbers are running much higher this year based on week-by-week comparisons.

The Warm Nights program was full after the first week of operation in November and was operating at 40 percent over capacity the second week, Riazi said. The program increased capacity by opening two church locations per week, but is still slightly over capacity, she said.

During busy nights, Community Crisis calls on church congregations to organize extra meals and rearrange shelter rooms to accommodate additional guests, Riazi said, and Community Crisis managers help answer calls to the Homeless Hotline.

“We never turn anyone away,” she said. “We work based upon what the situation is. It’s all about meeting the needs of our callers and our guests.”

Winter Shelter, an overnight program for homeless people hosted by Laurel churches on a rotating basis, extended its hours during the coldest nights.

“Normally the shelter opens at 7 p.m., but during these cold frigid days ... we let [the guests] stay until 9 p.m. a couple days,” said Pam Brown, the Winter Shelter coordinator at St. Philips Episcopal Church in Laurel. “Some people were coming in that were not registered. We had a couple cases where people were like, ‘It’s so cold. We can’t stay outside.’”

At St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Laurel, which hosted the Winter Shelter program for the week of Jan. 5, crowding was not an issue, although the church came close to reaching its maximum of 30 guests, coordinator Tom Arnold said.

Arnold said the program extended its hours on the mornings of Jan. 7 and Jan. 8 because of severely low temperatures that dropped to the single digits overnight in Laurel.

“Other than the 1996 storm when we stayed open all the time, to my knowledge that’s the only time we’ve done that,”Arnold said.

Mary Anne Montague has been coordinating the Warm Nights program at Sacred Heart Church in Bowie for 14 years and said the church was prepared for the cold front with soup, sloppy joes and a homemade bingo game that guests played to win gift cards. Montague said her shelter hosted 30 guests, which was more than last year, but that the Sacred Heart congregation stepped up to offer additional support.

“The parish comes out like gangbusters for it,” she said. “You just go with the flow.”