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Monday, July 15, 2024

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Warming Centers Won’t Open Due to COVID-19

Cape May County Social Services Building

By Bill Barlow

COURT HOUSE – Cape May County saw two mild winters in a row. Donna Groome is not counting on a third. 

“I always want to be prepared,” said Groome, head of Cape May County’s Department of Human Services, in a recent interview. This year, that means preparing to protect some of the county’s most vulnerable residents when the temperatures dip below freezing while also keeping them safe from COVID-19. 

This winter, that will mean a return to an old system for nights when Code Blue is declared. On those nights, the county will issue vouchers to be used at local motels to keep people warm. 

It’s a system that the county used for years. In 2018, county officials announced that individuals would no longer be eligible for the vouchers for Code Blue nights. Instead, the responsibility for ensuring everyone had somewhere warm to shelter on the coldest nights would fall to the municipalities.   

Last winter, towns set up warming centers in churches, police department lobbies, and elsewhere. Cape May County put $65,000 toward offsetting the strain on local budgets. Several officials and advocates indicated that by spring, many of the glitches were resolved and the system worked well. 

That was before COVID-19 came to America. 

Some counties plan to continue to rely on warming centers, but in Cape May County, after extensive discussion, officials decided the warming centers would not be open this winter. 

“They are congregate settings, and congregate settings can be very difficult when it comes to COVID-19,” said Groome. 

There have been hopeful signs recently, with reports of potentially effective vaccines in the trial phases, but for now, the pandemic remains a fact of life. This fall, numbers of infections rose steadily around the nation and in Cape May County. 

In Middle Township last winter, the warming center was in Cape Community Church, on Route 9, where there were cots for 12 people in the hall.  

The county Fare Free Transportation service brought people over from The Branches Outreach Center, in Rio Grande, and dropped them off again at 6 a.m. the next morning, when the crew at The Branches would have breakfast ready.

“Once it started flowing last year, it worked fine,” said Terri Mascione, administrator of The Branches. 

This year, even transportation created issues, according to Groome, with questions of how people could be driven safely to the warming centers and maintain the recommended social distance. 

County officials considered the options for this winter with municipal leaders, according to Freeholder Jeffrey Pierson, whose county responsibilities include Cape May County Social Services. There were too many concerns with gathering people in warming centers, he said. 

“We’ll stick to the motels at least until the spring of 2021,” Pierson said. 

The question arose in March, “when COVID first started to rear its ugly head,” as Groome put it. The rules also changed this year, she added.  

Previously, Code Blue would be called if temperatures were expected to drop below 25 degrees, or 32 degrees if it were raining, sleeting, or snowing. This year, conditions are considered Code Blue if the thermometer drops to 32 degrees or below, with or without precipitation. 

“It just seemed to be safer to continue with the motel model,” she said. 

Those who need emergency shelter because of Code Blue are given a voucher that can be used in any of 14 participating motels in the county. Most are in the Rio Grande area, but, according to Groome, there are participating businesses in Lower Township, Wildwood, and Upper Township. 

“They’re all over. People can determine which hotel would best meet their needs, depending on where they are,” she said. Those seeking the service can call county Social Services during business hours, at 609-886-6200 ext. 2434 or dial 211, which will connect them with local services. 

Those who do not have access to a phone can visit county Social Services, at 4005 Route 9 South. There, they will be allowed to use a phone in the lobby, while the office remains closed because of COVID-19 restrictions. 

The office has not shut down at any point in the pandemic, she said, and staff continued to assist anyone seeking shelter, but only employees are allowed access to the building. 

The staff responding to 211 calls and those answering the phone will arrange for Code Blue shelter, as well as gather information about what other services could be available. 

“They will do an assessment to determine if it is a broader issue and whether they qualify for other benefits and more consistent assistance,” Groome said. 

For weekends, holidays, and after hours, she said, people can call 211. Area police and emergency responders are also tuned in to the change, according to Pierson.   

As of Thanksgiving week, Cape May County experienced two Code Blue nights, before winter officially started (Dec. 21). 

At the Branches, COVID-19 brought other changes. While the location used to be an activity center, only the volunteers are allowed inside. 

“Because of COVID, we haven’t been bringing people in here. We’ve kind of turned into a food bank,” Mascione said. 

When Code Blue is called, she said, The Branches will feed the homeless heading to the motels. That includes a hot meal for the evening and a cold breakfast for the next morning. 

The first time temperatures reached Code Blue this year, she said, eight people received food from The Branches. The change was announced the day before, she said. Now, there is a notice on the front of the building. 

In spring, local advocates indicated there were fewer people without shelter in Cape May County, as many of the rules for emergency housing were eased because of the pandemic. Now, there are people living in wooded areas around Rio Grande and elsewhere, Mascione said. 

“Some just won’t come out of the woods for whatever reason,” she said. 

When county officials announced the change in 2018, budgetary issues were central to the rationale. The warming centers would not cost less, officials said, but the county was advised by the state that the funding sources they used were not allocated for Code Blue programs. 

According to Groome, some of the funding sources for the vouchers came from temporary funding sources, including emergency spending related to the pandemic.  

There is also a state fund of $2.5 million to help counties address Code Blue during the pandemic, she said, of which Cape May County will get $25,000 (https://bit.ly/33wd2wS). 

According to Groome, the county will continue to evaluate the process in the future. If by next winter, COVID-19 is just an unhappy memory, the warming centers could be back, although it is not likely that would change before the spring. 

By that time, her office may have moved to the County Commons, a mix of public and private use at the former Kmart shopping center. She said the new location is closer to bus routes and may be more convenient for many people. 

She added that the area has a wonderful network of municipal emergency management coordinators, social service coordinators, and faith-based organizations working on the issue. 

To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com. 

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