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Frigid temperatures pose threat to homeless residents, Boston officials warn

Bundled in blankets and a sleeping bag, a homeless man sat on a bench in Copley Square in Boston on Wednesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Dangerously cold conditions expected in Massachusetts have prompted school districts across the state to cancel classes for Friday and officials to increase outreach to vulnerable populations, particularly residents who live on the streets.

The National Weather Service in Norton has issued a windchill warning for Massachusetts for Friday, when a frigid air mass is expected to move into Southern New England, and last into Saturday.

Public schools in Boston, Chicopee, Holyoke, Springfield, Framingham, Westfield and Worcester canceled classes for Friday, officials announced Thursday.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu declared a cold emergency Friday through Sunday and said Boston Centers for Youth & Families facilities will open as warming centers. Meanwhile, Governor Maura Healey’s office said South Station will stay open Friday and Saturday nights as a last option for people to escape the frigid cold.


“We have been in close contact with local leaders and service providers to make sure people are being [taken] care of during the extreme weather, including having providers available to offer transportation to shelter for those who want it as well as other resources,” Healey said in a statement. “We encourage anyone who needs a place to stay to accept this offer and spend the night at a safe, warm shelter rather than at the station.”

At a late afternoon press conference Thursday, city officials and leaders of the Pine Street Inn, the city’s largest provider of services to the homeless, said the nonprofit’s outreach team will add staff and two vehicles to shuttle people to shelters.

“They’ll be transporting people to shelter who want shelter, they will be trying to convince people who don’t want shelter to come to shelter, and honestly in some cases, we’ll ask people to sit in the van with us for a few hours just to get out of the worst of it,” said Lyndia Downie, president of Pine Street Inn.


The shelter’s staff typically counts between 60 and 70 people on the street along their regular outreach routes on cold nights, she said.

For those who refuse shelter or are not able to make the decision themselves, staff will work with the police and emergency responders, said Ed Cameron, Pine Street’s senior director of outreach.

“Sometimes people with exposed feet, or (damaged) skin, clearly are at risk to themselves and we will take those steps to engage EMS,” he said.

Officials began earlier this week working on plans to protect people from the expected extreme cold.

On Wednesday, Wu said city officials were working “quickly to ensure that everyone is protected from the intense cold weather.”

“I urge all Boston residents to take precautions, stay warm and safe, and check on your neighbors during this cold emergency,” Wu said in a statement.

As the temperature drops this weekend, the risk of hypothermia and frostbite rises, especially for people who are living on the streets, as well as the elderly and children.

“If you see people experiencing homelessness out in the cold, please call 911,” Wu’s office said in a statement. “If residents are aware of anyone staying in a vehicle or a place not intended for living during these extreme cold temperatures, they are encouraged to call 911 as well.”

The Boston Police Department said its street outreach unit will be passing out gloves, hats, jackets, and hand warmers. Officers will be on heightened alert to assist people outside and conduct wellness checks and coordinate transportation to available shelters, said Mariellen Burns, chief of communications for the department.


“The Boston Police Department is making announcements on every shift reminding officers and all personnel to be on the lookout for people on the streets,” Burns wrote in an e-mail Thursday.

St. Francis House, another of the city’s major providers for the homeless,said it will open its shelter on Boylston Street at 5 a.m. Friday and will stay open through Sunday, the organization said on Facebook.

“Staff are committing extra hours so that, in addition to our regular services, we are able to stay open as a warming center overnight on Friday and Saturday, providing shelter, soup and sandwiches,” the post said.

According to Downie, Pine Street Inn, the city, and the state are working collaboratively to ensure there is enough room for all seeking warmth and shelter.

“No one will be turned away,” Downie said. “Not here, not anywhere else in the city.”

Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickStoico. Sonel Cutler can be reached at sonel.cutler@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cutler_sonel.