With mercury dropping, shelters look to help homeless stay warm

  • Jeff Dillon talks about being homeless, Tuesday, during freezing temperatures in downtown Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Benjamin Boliver asks for help in downtown Northampton, Tuesday. Though he is no longer homeless, he still needs money for living expenses. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A line of about 20 people extends down a hallway to the doors of the Interfaith Winter Shelter in Northampton, Tuesday. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 12/26/2017 10:51:10 PM

With frigid temperatures forecast to become the norm for the next week, area shelters are keeping their doors open to help those looking for a warm place to stay.

The Interfaith Winter Shelter at 43 Center St. will be extending its hours to allow for guests to come in during the day when the shelter would otherwise be closed. For Gene Hallisey, the extra hours at the shelter allow him to have another place to get away from the cold.

“It’s really helpful,” he said. “It keeps us warm.”

Hallisey, 33, has been homeless off-and-on for five years. He said he uses the Interfaith Shelter as well as the one on Grove Street. When it’s cold, Hallisey said, it’s hard but he has places he goes like the library or a coffee shop when he has money for coffee.

National Weather Service spokesman and meteorologist Bill Simpson explained that an Arctic outburst will bring an extended period of temperatures well below freezing as well as wind chills that could reach below zero.

Thursday’s predicted high temperature could be at or near the record for lowest high temperatures, Simpson said.

“That is definitely in jeopardy,” he said of the “low max” record.

Highs are forecast in the upper and lower teens for Wednesday and Thursday respectively, with overnight temperatures dropping into the single digits, Simpson said.

With wind chills Wednesday, it’s likely to feel to closer to zero and then even colder Thursday morning.

Shelters respond

During the winter, the Interfaith Winter Shelter in Northampton opens at 6 p.m. and the line to get in begins at 5:30 p.m. Guests are given dinner as well as breakfast before being sent on their way for the day around 7 a.m. With the extreme cold in the forecast, though, the shelter will be open throughout the day through Saturday, ServiceNet spokeswoman Amy Swisher said Tuesday.

During those extra hours, people “just sort of hang out or they ask to do some chores or watch TV,” said Katie Miernecki, director of the Hampshire County Shelter and Housing Services.

“I tell everyone if it’s this cold, do not try to stay in a tent. It’s not safe,” Miernecki said.

The shelter has 20 beds and offers six beds at an overflow shelter in Easthampton. A more permanent shelter on Grove Street houses 21 people but may serve as overflow space if the need is there during cold temperatures.

The shelter in Northampton is dry but in nearby Amherst there is a behavior-based shelter, so those who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs are welcome to stay so long as they are not creating problems.

“In these seriously cold temperatures, though, if someone needs to just get out of the cold, we take people in,” Swisher said. “We’re not going to leave someone standing out in the cold.”

Craig’s Place, the behavior-based homeless shelter in Amherst, can accommodate up to 28 guests, with its doors opening at 9 p.m. Once its beds are filled, staff and volunteers will make efforts to find space in the Northampton or Springfield shelters, and provide people means of getting to those locations.

Gerry Weiss, a member of the Craig’s Doors: A Home Association board, said his understanding is that town officials will not allow the shelter to take in additional guests unless more staff is hired.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said while the town doesn’t have a cold-weather crisis response team, police and firefighters are alert to the needs of the homeless.

“We want everyone to stay safe,” Bockelman said.

Recent death

Hwei-Ling Greeney, founder and executive director of Amherst Community Connections, said she is worried about the people living on the streets, and hopes the emergency shelter will adjust rules during extreme weather events, including lifting any trespass orders.

The recent death of Christopher Lynch, who was found in a homeless encampment in the woods behind Stop & Shop on Russell Street in Hadley on Thanksgiving, can be a learning experience.

A death certificate from the Hadley town clerk confirms 63-year-old Lynch’s death and location but does not list a cause. His death was not considered suspicious, according to Mary Carey, spokeswoman for the Northwestern district attorney’s office.

Greeney said Lynch would often talk about resuming his piano-tuning and roofing work, and expressed pride in his daughter graduating from the University of Massachusetts.

“He never lost hope about what he could do if he got back into his house,” Greeney said.

‘Catch a cold’

Standing along Main Street in Northampton on Tuesday afternoon near TD Bank, 68-year-old Jeff Dillon held a sign that read “Please help homeless and hungry and cold thanks.”

Dillon said he’s been homeless for over a decade and doesn’t use the area shelters. In past years, Dillon said he has had friends to stay with during the especially cold nights but now all his friends are gone.

When asked what he would do during the cold snap this week, Dillon said he had no idea what he would do even on Tuesday night.

“Probably catch a cold,” he said.

Sitting in front of CVS Pharmacy, Benjamin Boliver, 38, held a sign asking for money to help with living expenses or cigarettes or “bud.” Boliver said he was homeless for about five years but now has a place to live in Florence. He said he still spends a lot of time outside.

Before he had an apartment, Boliver said, he slept outside for two entire winters.

In Amherst, Greeney said the town must redouble efforts to get employment for homeless individuals and then into stable housing, and make sure the county’s shelters are meeting emergency needs, not becoming a lifestyle.

“We look at housing as the solution all year ’round,” Greeney said.

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com. Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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