TOMS RIVER – James Havens lives in a tent in the woods. The 39-year-old has been homeless for years. On Thursday, as the snow fell and the temperature plummeted to arctic levels, he did something rare.
He headed for a shelter.
Taking advantage of the new “Code Blue” law, Havens and 14 others spent the night in a warming center at First Assembly of God Church in Toms River.
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“If this wasn’t here tonight, there would be a lot of people out there freezing, probably wouldn’t wake up in the morning,” Havens said. “On my way here I stopped at a couple of tent sites and they were collapsed.
Spend some time in the makeshift shelter, which consists of 20 cots, a community room with a TV and a buffet provided by donors, and you’ll glimpse how important Code Blue is – and why it’s just one step in the right direction.
‘I wouldn’t have lasted much longer’
Code Blue, signed by Gov. Chris Christie in May, formalizes a procedure for helping people at risk when the temperature dips below 32 degrees with precipitation or 25 degrees with no precipitation. Such conditions trigger the opening of overnight warming centers powered by volunteers and goodwill organizations – not government funding – and an effort by law enforcement officials to get the homeless there.
In Toms River and surrounding towns, police distributed fliers throughout homeless encampments and, in some cases, drove people to the church.
That’s how 29-year-old Stefani Mitchell got there
Mitchell, who had been hooked on heroin and Ecstasy, said her family “put me out” on Jan. 1. Stafford Township police picked her up and brought her to First Assembly of God
“All my bad choices led me to be here,” she said. “My family’s giving me tough love right now. Being scared and being in the cold, it’s rough. I wouldn’t have lasted much longer.”
Alcohol and drugs are forbidden at the warming center, and it’s not a rehab facility. But Paul Hulse, outreach director of the local nonprofit HAVEN/Beat the Street, which supervises the shelter, got Mitchell enrolled in a 15-month residential addiction program on Long Island. She went there Friday.
“I’ve gotten more help here than anywhere else,” said Mitchell, one of three women who stayed overnight Thursday in separate quarters within the church. “I came here and knew nobody, but I’ve been surprisingly comfortable, not nervous. It’s a start for me.”
Hulse and Paul Gifford, Assembly of God’s pastor, have been helping the area’s homeless for several years. They jumped at the opportunity to open the warming center. By showing its value for someone like Mitchell, they hope this is a step toward a permanent homeless shelter opening somewhere in Ocean County
“Everything has to move in moderation,” Hulse said. “The key piece is showing not just that we need something, but that there’s a solution behind that need.”
On Thursday, both Gifford and Hulse slept over at the warming center. The atmosphere was low-key but collegial. A handful of residents watched a big-screen TV while others chatted over coffee or tea. Most were asleep by 9 p.m.
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“So far we’ve had no problems, no issues,” Gifford said. “Our residents have been great. They help clean up in the morning, mop the floors, take out the trash.”
Hulse said the vibe is similar at the Lakewood Community Center, a Code Blue station that housed 32 people Thursday. The initiative shows what’s possible when everyone – politicians, law enforcement and concerned citizens – pulls in the same direction.
“It’s been a great collaboration,” Hulse said. “We’re getting them inside, keeping them warm, keeping them safe and hooking them into resources, which is even better.”
Thursday was a breakthrough of sorts for Havens, who left his tent out of necessity but found camaraderie at the warming center. More than a decade of homelessness had left him aloof, distrustful.
“It’s a struggle,” he said. “People look at us as bums or drug addicts. Some look at us, shrug their shoulders and hold on to their purse or wallet tight. I like to keep to myself, but there’s a bunch of good people here.”
As the temperature outside dipped below 10 degrees, with more than a foot of snow surrounding the church, Havens took a long swig of his coffee. He wore a knitted hat indoors, his face weathered from years of living in the elements.
There have been mornings in the woods, he said, when he found bodies of acquaintances who didn’t survive the night.
“It’s horrible out there,” he said. “They’re doing a good thing here. I figured I’d come out here tonight and give it a shot.”
The staff is hoping he sticks around.
“You just want to open up that reservoir of hope inside people,” said Martha Barnhill, a volunteer who spent Thursday night in the women’s quarters. “You want to let them know: They do mean something. They are important.”