Metro

A rush to get homeless in from cold

As temperatures plunge to perilous depths, city expands shelter space

People waited to be admitted to the Boston Night Center one at a time shortly after the doors opened at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

John Blanding/Globe Staff

People waited to be admitted to the Boston Night Center one at a time shortly after the doors opened at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

With temperatures expected to plummet below zero this week, city officials and homeless advocates are racing to find more space to house the surge of people sleeping on the streets since the city’s largest shelter on Long Island closed last fall.

They also urged residents to alert authorities if they see anyone sleeping outside who looks to be at risk of hypothermia.

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“We are very concerned about this cold weather,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement, noting that temperatures have plunged below zero only twice in the past decade. “I’m personally asking each and every single Boston resident to look after their neighbor.”

Among the steps officials have taken in recent days has been to reopen the Boston Night Center, a downtown refuge of last resort that for years welcomed those barred from other shelters. The Night Center won’t have any beds or cots, but it will take in as many as 65 people a night, feeding them, providing showers and floor space to sleep, and allowing them to come and go through the night.

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The center will remain open through May and will be run by Bay Cove Human Services for about $65,000 a month, most of it subsidized by the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, a private group that coordinates with local doctors and the city.

“I’m really glad we got it open when we did,” said Bill Sprague, president of Bay Cove. “The next few nights are going to be brutal.”

According to the National Weather Service, temperatures are expected to fall to as low as minus 1 in Boston around dawn Thursday, with brisk winds.

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The additional shelter space is needed as outreach workers report seeing more people than ever on the streets.

They noted that warm space during the winter was in increasing demand even before city officials condemned the rickety bridge to Long Island, where more than 500 homeless people often spent the night during the winter months.

In recent years, officials barred the homeless from spending the night at South Station and Logan International Airport. The closure of the Night Center several years ago — the result of budget cuts and a new effort to focus on housing for the homeless — has added pressure on shelters, which have become increasingly crowded.

John Samaan, president of the Boston Rescue Mission, said his downtown shelter had to add an additional 30 cots last month to accommodate the surge. His staff has also provided 35 percent more meals since Long Island closed.

The reopening of the Night Center last Friday is beginning to relieve some of the pressure, but the city shouldn’t have waited so long to prepare for the inevitable increase in demand for shelter, he said.

“We should have been ready for this way earlier — before the winter,” he said.

John Blanding/Globe Staff

Albert Hargrove (left) and Richard Briggs said a judge took them to the Boston Night Center after they asked directions.

At the Pine Street Inn, where demand for beds has reached record levels, more than 100 people have been sleeping on the floor of the lobby on recent nights. Officials are now planning to open their dining room to provide additional space.

Pine Street is running its outreach vans day and night and will allow the homeless to remain in the shelter throughout the cold spell.

“Everyone’s concerned about what will happen this week,” said Barbara Trevisan, a spokeswoman for the Pine Street Inn.

Dr. James O’Connell, president of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, said he has seen about 30 percent more people on the streets this winter than last year.

With the barring of South Station and Logan Airport as sites for the homeless, O’Connell said he worries it will be harder for outreach workers to find those who refuse to stay in shelters, which many view as unsafe.

He also worries that the homeless, many of whom have become accustomed to staying outdoors, aren’t prepared for this week’s frigid temperatures.

“I panic during cold weather like this,” O’Connell said. “We’ll see all the consequences of exposure. People who stay outside don’t protect themselves enough.”

City officials said they’re looking forward to the opening of a new shelter on Southampton Street, which is expected to start housing 100 men this month. The shelter will replace the one that closed on Long Island and should ultimately house nearly 500 people by this spring.

Until then, they are scrounging for more space wherever they can find it, including at the South End Fitness Center, where 250 men have been sleeping on cots and mats in already cramped conditions since October.

“We are concerned that everybody has a place to stay,” said Beth Grand, director of homeless services for the Boston Public Health Commission.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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