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Code Blue Mandate

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

Anyone who knows me, knows that I have been an advocate and a volunteer for Code Blue since 2013 when a number of volunteers got together to launch a network of Code Blue warming centers in several of Bridgeton’s houses of worship in response to the death of Joseph Henshaw, who died of exposure in December of that year.

From that time to the present, the program has been an all-volunteer effort and it has worked well. If you are not familiar with the mechanics of Code Blue, it’s active when temperatures are 32 degrees or lower with precipitation or 25 degrees or lower without precipitation. If one of those two things comes to pass, the doors open from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. so the homeless can have a warm dry place to sleep overnight.

While the form of Code Blue varies from community to community, in Bridgeton it is always staffed by volunteers, it is hosted in churches, and we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to provide bedding, meals, and wrap-around services. In fact, over the last couple of years, Code Blue has been part of a larger “Housing First” framework that helps to transition the chronically homeless to permanent housing with support services as needed.

From season to season we never know what demands will be made on the Code Blue program—or on the volunteers. Some years, we’ll have a relatively mild winter with hardly any frozen precipitation. In other years, the cold will settle and stay as will the frozen precipitation, and Code Blue will be operating for weeks at a time.

Nothing about those 12 hours (6 p.m. to 6 a.m.) is easy on the volunteers and few will work an entire shift. Few volunteers want to work overnight and when we’re in a long stretch of nights where Code Blue is active, we’re often struggling to provide adequate staffing. String enough nights together and volunteers can burn out before spring arrives. That’s not a criticism, just recognition that it can get tiring fairly quickly.

That’s why I was more than a little concerned when I reviewed the legislation known S3422, which was passed by both the Assembly and State Senate last week. Unlike the current standard, S3422 would require that a Code Blue be declared when temps hit 32 degrees no matter what. Those 7 degrees mark the difference between making it through the winter season somewhat intact or burning out a group of volunteers by the second week in January.

Even under the current standard (temperatures 32 degrees or lower with precipitation or 25 degrees or lower without precipitation), for a variety of reasons, the pool of volunteers willing to work multiple nights and overnight is fairly small. By increasing, perhaps by as much as half, the number of Code Blue events to be called during a winter season, it’s likely we’ll run out of willing volunteers sooner.

I understand the intent behind the legislation, which is to save lives by getting the homeless off the streets when temps are freezing or below, but I believe that increasing the number of Code Blue nights will actually work against that goal by potentially placing a much greater strain on this army of willing volunteers. People will get used up, burned out, and discouraged.

S3422 has the feel of an unfunded mandate because it says; “do more of this,” but it provides no resources to help. For example, under the current framework, we’ve managed for the most part to provide everyone with a hot meal, clean linens, and personal items each Code Blue night. It’s not at all clear that we’ll be able to cover the costs associated with perhaps a couple of dozen additional nights of food, washing linens, or personal hygiene supplies let alone finding available volunteers.

Perhaps it’s time for the sponsors, and the legislature as a whole, to consider providing counties and communities with a robust pipeline of Code Blue funds, especially if they’re going to move from enabling to now dictating—which is something you can only do so much of when you’re depending on volunteers. As dedicated as we are, we have our limits.

Mayoral Musings