By Briana Vannozzi
Volunteers place linens on rows of cots in the back of a church in Bridgeton, Cumberland County. As temperatures dip below 15 degrees, warming centers across the state are being activated as part of what’s called a “Code Blue” program.
“We call it Code Blue here in Bridgeton when it’s 25 degrees or below or 32 degrees with precipitation,” said Mayor Albert Kelly.
They provide shelter and a hot meal for homeless or at-risk residents for as long as extreme weather persists.
“We have a large population of homeless here in Bridgeton and when the temperature gets cold, for the people who don’t have a place to go, it’s horrific,” said Bill Whelan, site coordinator at the Parish of the Holy Cross.
New Jersey had a little over 10,000 homeless residents at last count in 2015, and about 200 in Cumberland County. Community leaders here say the program works well because it’s operated on a grass roots level, relying on churches and local organizations. But not all counties or municipalities have a Code Blue plan. And for those that do, the coverage is inconsistent. South Jersey Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak has proposed a bill to change that.
“Basically what this legislation would do is blanket it across the entire state, make it uniform. So as far as cold temperatures, it would kick in at 40 degrees and below,” he said.
It’ll also require a public awareness campaign from each county, and 24 hours notice prior to a weather event.
“It’s really people who are just down on their luck, don’t have shelter who are homeless. It’s really providing them the necessities for life,” Andrzejczak said.
In Camden, officers walk the streets checking in on the elderly and vulnerable. Code Blue is generally activated at 30 degrees or below.
“The county health officer makes the declaration and we work with the municipalities to make sure they have their shelters open and ample opportunity for people to get indoors,” Camden County Spokesperson Dan Keashan said.
There are about 14 counties throughout the state participating in some variation of a Code Blue program, but the starting point for it to kick in can vary drastically — anywhere from 40 degrees down to 15. And the program in Bridgeton is one of the only in the country to be run solely by volunteers.
“There are literally hundreds of volunteers who help with this effort every winter now and they do it without anyone telling them that they need to do it or anyone telling them it’s required,” Whelan said.
Which is why many, despite their appreciation of the bill, aren’t enthusiastic about a state-run mandate.
“When you do state it’s a lot of regulations. We find that with a lot of the homeless when you start putting in the ‘we’ll do this for you if you do that’ they disappear,” said Bridgeton Code Blue Coordinator Nina Young.
“Really we’re mandating it, but allowing the counties to regulate how they do it so if the counties want to rely on public outreach from churches or different organizations that could be a part of their Code Blue program,” Andrzejczak said.
The bill has yet to make it out of committee. But even those who are hesitant say if it takes a state mandate to spur more involvement and help for the needy, so be it.