On the coldest nights last winter Toms River’s homeless could retire to a warming center — a makeshift shelter that rotated between two churches in town, unless it was a Saturday or Sunday when the church space already was booked. Then they were out of luck.
That was a wrinkle in the successful debut season for the Code Blue initiative, which resulted in more than 1,600 “bed nights” — the number of times people sought refuge, some of them on multiple occasions in Toms River and Lakewood.
Now, like Lakewood, Toms River is dedicating municipal space as a permanent Code Blue shelter. The Riverwood Park Rec Building will serve as an overnight warming center whenever the temperature dips below 32 degrees with precipitation or 25 degrees with no precipitation.
“It’s really important that they have a facility that can open any day of the week,” Toms River councilwoman Laurie Huryk said. “And it’s an improvement because the facility is bigger than what they were using before.”
The building, which Huryk said went largely unused in recent years contains two floors. The lower level will be sleeping quarters for as many as 20 people, and the upper level will be space for service providers partnering with HAVEN/Beat the Street, the local nonprofit that supervises the warming center.
“Last year they were able to demonstrate that they redirected people coming in to get out of the cold to rehabs, job interviews, other programs that would help the get re-housed,” Huryk said. “It was a great outcome.”
Paul Hulse, HAVEN/Beat the Street’s outreach director said being open on weekends and using municipal space will enhance that mission. (Atop this story, check out a video from one of last year’s Code Blue nights).
“It gives us more time to get people in and keep them warm, and it gives us more time to work with individuals — to help them,” he said. “And we hope we’ll have more people volunteering now because they won’t feel like it’s just a church thing. It’s a community thing.”
The warming centers are powered by volunteers and goodwill organizations, with an assist from law enforcement officials who spread the word and provide transportation.
“There’s always that concern, that ‘not in my backyard’ thing, but what we found with Code Blue last year, the neighbors not only were not complaining — they were volunteering,” Huryk said. “They were bringing food and showing up, so it was the complete opposite reaction of what you might normally expect.”
Ocean County officials were surprised at how many people sought refuge. The county provided a $10,000 grant last year. Bill Southrey, HAVEN/Beat the Street’s president, said his nonprofit provided the equivalent of $50,000 in services.
“We’re hoping we get some (more) income from the county that will help offset it,” Southrey said. “That would be a great blessing. We had donations to help us and I used my own income.”
Either way, Southrey said, “I’m very grateful to Toms River for this. It’s really wonderful.”
For more information on the Toms River warming center, or to volunteer or donate, visit www.havenstreets.org or email Hulse email@example.com.
Staff writer Jerry Carino: firstname.lastname@example.org.