Cold comfort: U.S. homeless shelters overwhelmed in brutal weather

BOSTON (Reuters) - In the common room of Boston’s Pine Street Inn homeless shelter, dozens of blue vinyl pads and folded-up cots stood ready on Friday for another night’s rush of people fleeing the deadly cold that has gripped the region for almost two weeks.

The four-story building, whose 160-foot (49-meter) Tuscan-style tower is an icon of the Boston skyline, is filled with enough beds to sleep close to 500 people.

But they are not enough: Pine Street has packed in up to 100 extra people each night since Christmas, as harsh subfreezing temperatures gripped New England and much of the rest of the eastern United States.

The cold snap has been blamed for the death of at least three homeless men, in Texas and North Carolina, according to officials and local news media. It has provided a vivid illustration of a nationwide problem, as homelessness in United States rose in 2017 for the first time in seven years.

Pine Street staff members normally ask healthy guests to clear out during the daytime. But temperatures in Boston have remained below freezing for 11 days straight, and are forecast to dip below 0 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 17.8 degrees Celsius) over the weekend, prompting the shelter to allow people to stay inside throughout the bitter cold and a powerful blizzard that struck on Thursday.

“We don’t want anyone to die in the street,” said shelter spokeswoman Barbara Trevisan. “It’s really a matter of life and death.”

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Homelessness is on the rise in the United States, according to federal survey data released last month, which said 553,742 people lacked homes on a given night in 2017.

That figure was up 1 percent from 2016, an increase that reflects rising housing prices in cities from New York to San Francisco.

Amid the brutal cold, officials in Boston, New York and other major cities are stepping up their efforts to find homeless people on the streets and encourage them into shelters.

Homelessness has surged to a record high in New York, with more than 130,000 people finding themselves homeless at some point in 2017, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy and service group.

In the face of that rise, the city is stepping up its response, planning to add another 450 beds for homeless people from its current 1,100, in a mix of private and public shelters, said Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Homeless Services. During the current cold snap it has doubled the number of people trying to persuade homeless people on the street to come in to shelters.

“We’re currently at record homelessness levels, so capacity is tight and that is definitely a concern,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition.

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In Boston, dozens lined up in the Pine Street Inn on Friday for a lunch of soup and sandwiches, some of the 2,500 meals the facility is serving each day during this period of high demand, 500 more than usual.

The cost of food for extra meals, doubling staff levels during the day and sending out more crews to find people sleeping on the streets, has caused the facility to overrun its budget by about 25 percent during the past two weeks, said shelter manager Josh O’Brien.

“It’s a big strain,” said O’Brien, who said he has not experienced a period of intense cold this long in the 25 years he has run homeless shelters.

Tom Smith, 55, who is has been staying at Pine Street since being released from prison in August, credits the shelter with keeping him alive during the cold snap. During a prior period of homelessness, he had lived in a tent that likely would not have survived this week’s blizzard.

“With the weight of the snow, the tent would have collapsed, I couldn’t have started a fire,” Smith said. “Having a facility like this is the best thing you can have. It’s a lifesaver.”

Reporting by Scott Malone; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Amr Alfiky in New York