“I’d be at Military Park asleep right now [if I weren’t at this shelter],” said Robert Dunston, an unsheltered resident of Newark.
But, that’s not an option in the cold where faces wrapped in scarves and heads covered with hoods are no match for the arctic blast engulfing all of New Jersey. The forecast high temperatures are barely reaching 20 degrees, and wind chill factors are making it feel lower than zero. It’s what health and weather experts refer to as “dangerous cold”, which is prime for hypothermia and frostbite, and the cause for Newark’s new 24/7 winter shelter to be nearing max capacity.
“For the first week and a half we averaged about 80 individuals, but over the past three days the average has been 90. We had 95 last night, so as the cold continues and the word gets out, there will be more and more residents coming,” said Dr. Mark Wade, director of Newark’s Department of Health and Community Wellness.
The shelter officially opened just a couple weeks ago and word has spread to the city’s most vulnerable, as temperatures continue to plummet. Nearly every county has issued a “Code Blue” warning, initiating response plans for the homeless population.
“So we go out and actually get them off the street and bring them inside in the code blue. We also have a hotline for people who don’t have hot water or heat during that time to call,” said Newark mayor Ras Baraka.
“There are 57 shelter programs in Essex County, 31 of which are in Newark, so again we’re not the first or only, but we’re able to meet a precious need right now for those who can’t get into the regular shelters, but need to get off the streets,” said Wade.
Dunston is one of many using the services. He has one backpack filled with his belongings and two new blankets.
“We’re blessed here with a roof over our heads. I’m very happy that I’m not in the streets, and my life is saved because it’s very cold outside right now,” said Dunston.
Diana Baldwin is saving up $162 to buy a bus ticket to Georgia, so she can stay with her daughter and stay out of the cold.
“It’s very bad, [people get] robbed, raped. It’s very bad out there, but there’s other places you can go where they’re giving out sleeping bags and blankets, but you can only go so far with that. In these temperatures, it’s very cold so, it was very nice they opened up a place like this for people like us,” said Baldwin.
“There’s an actual opportunity to connect folks who are unsheltered with sheltering possibilities and supportive services that are aimed at reducing recidivism, so that when the winter season is over they’re not just all put back into the street,” said Vicky Donaldson, director of social services for the Department of Health and Community Wellness.
You only need to go outside for a few minutes to know it’s not safe to stay. And forecasters aren’t expecting daytime temperatures to rise above freezing until after New Year’s Day. For a full listing of all the warming centers in your county, visit the warming centers’ website.