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Bitter cold drives homeless to shelters

Some homeless men found space on the floor of a Pine Street Inn facility, and other shelters also faced overflow crowds as the temperature outside fell Thursday night.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Some homeless men found space on the floor of a Pine Street Inn facility, and other shelters also faced overflow crowds as the temperature outside fell Thursday night.

The temperature hovered in the high teens outside the Pine Street Inn as dozens of men clustered for warmth in the spartan lobby. Some played cards Thursday, others fingered dominoes, but most of the homeless simply sat quietly at long tables, staring down at their hands or looking blankly into space.

Nearby, 15 men lay on the floor near a heating vent, many in a fetal position. Fold-up beds, reserved for the elderly and disabled, had been stacked to the side, close to floor-cushioning mats that would be used as bedding during another night of overflow demand.

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“We pretty much lay them out anywhere we have space,” said Stephanie Brown, a case manager there.

The blame can be laid on the bitter cold, which is upending and rearranging life across the region. The extreme temperatures, expected to reach single digits in Boston by Friday morning, have pushed thousands of homeless men and women to crowded shelters like the Pine Street Inn, caused a raft of delays in public transportation, and kept countless people penned indoors and out of frostbite’s way.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The Pine Street Inn expanded outreach and sent out vans earlier in search of vulnerable people, a spokeswoman said.

At least 10 MBTA subway trains were disabled Thursday on the Red, Orange, and Green lines when the cold caused their air-based propulsion systems to fail, said Kelly Smith, a T spokeswoman.

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Most of the problems occurred on the south side of the Red Line and caused moderate delays for riders heading into Boston from the South Shore, MBTA officials said. Two commuter-rail trains were delayed by the cold.

Amtrak service in the Northeast Corridor is expected to be affected Friday, with fewer trains and possible delays on the Acela Express and Northeast Regional service, which connects Boston and New York.

The arctic temperatures, which are not expected to moderate until Saturday morning, also played a role in fires Thursday in Somerville and West Bridgewater, authorities said.

In Somerville, seven residents were displaced from a multifamily house on Mount Vernon Street after a homeowner attempted to thaw a frozen pipe with a blowtorch, Deputy Fire Chief Jim Lucia said.

“The house is uninhabitable,” Lucia said.

In West Bridgewater, a home on Ash Street was destroyed following the improper disposal of wood stove ashes on the front steps, said the state fire marshal’s office. A couple and their dog escaped that early morning fire without injury, but firefighters were hampered by frozen hydrants.

At shelters in the region, the homeless outnumbered beds and sought warmth on floors, in corners, or wherever they could find an empty chair. At the Pine Street Inn, 83 homeless people slept in the lobby overnight Wednesday because the 254 beds at the main men’s shelter were occupied, staff members said.

“If you’re out, it could be life or death. It is that cold out,” said Barbara Trevisan, a Pine Street Inn spokeswoman. “We will not turn anyone away.”

Pine Street has expanded outreach during the bitter cold and dispatched vans earlier in the day — about 4 p.m., instead of 9 p.m. — to seek vulnerable people during the night and persuade them to seek shelter, Trevisan said.

Boston police have also intensified their lookout, said Sergeant Michael McCarthy, a department spokesman.

“It’s our policy that no person, regardless of their means, will be forced to spend time outside,” McCarthy said. “Anybody that needs a shelter, we will certainly get them to one.”

“There’s a standing commissioner’s memo that goes out every year — and this year is no different with the severe cold — to encourage officers to closely monitor their areas of patrol, and to ID and transport any person who is without shelter.”

That effort, as well as the Pine Street Inn’s outreach, appears to have been successful, city officials said.

“People have really heeded the warnings pretty well and managed to stay inside for the most part,” said Nick Martin, spokesman for the Boston Public Health Commission.

Since Monday, the city’s Emergency Medical Services had treated and transported nine people who were considered at risk for hypothermia and two patients suffering from hypothermia, Martin said. “I haven’t heard of anyone refusing transport,” Martin said.

The bitter cold is expected to moderate by Saturday morning, said Bill Simpson, a National Weather Service spokesman. The low temperature in Boston of 6 degrees on Thursday did not approach the Boston record of minus 6 for the date, in 1882.

“It’s not record-breaking by any means,” Simpson said of the cold snap. “It just hasn’t happened in a couple of years.”

Many of the homeless who found shelter at the Pine Street Inn are veterans in finding ways to avoid and adjust to cold weather.

Frank Fogg, a 71-year-old native of Woburn, recalled past strategies.

“I know what this bitter cold is,” said Fogg, who years ago was hospitalized for frostbite in both feet. “I’ve stayed in trucks, cars, cellars, wherever I could survive to stay warm. I’d go through trash barrels to find blankets.”

Outside, 57-year-old Tony Marotta chatted with friends, all bundled in heavy clothing, and complained that the two pairs of gloves he wore on each hand were not enough for this extreme weather.

“I can still feel the cold through them,” said Marotta.

The cold is one more obstacle for the homeless, but shared knowledge helps bridge the tough times that can stretch from autumn until spring.

“You get to know where to go to stay warm, the Prudential Mall, South Station, the Boston Public Library,” he said. “Believe me, if you’re homeless, you’re going to seek them out.”

Martine Powers of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.
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