On very cold winter days when the combination of temperature, wind chill, and precipitation create a “real feel” of near or below 20 degree, Philadelphia enters a “Code Blue,” during which, outreach teams work with police to get homeless people to shelters.
Wondering what you can do to help? According to Josh Kruger, former communications director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, it’s as simple as picking up the phone.
“The absolute best thing you can do is to call the homeless outreach line — 215-232-1984,” Kruger said. “That puts you in touch directly with dispatch teams fanned out across the city whose primary focus is to get people off the streets.”
Kruger encouraged people to save the number on their phones and share it via social media.
“Every time the City of Philadelphia tweets out that number," he said, "hundreds and hundreds of people share it, and that educates people on where they can turn.”
What you shouldn’t do, Kruger says, is run to the closest homeless shelter and ask if you can lend a hand.
“Especially during times like Code Blue, it’s not a great idea to direct people straight to emergency sites, where volunteers inundating the shelter can perhaps cause more problems for the staff on hand.”
Former Covenant House volunteer coordinator Robert Zindell agreed, noting that most agencies have an application and clearance process that volunteers must complete before showing up. (Kruger recommended SERVE Philadelphia — serve.phila.gov — as a great resource for those interested in volunteering in the future.)
“Outreach professionals are trained to be able to assess multiple situations to make sure that they stay safe and the person that they’re working with stays safe,” Zindell said.
Like Kruger, Zindell stressed the importance of simply calling.
“If you see someone that looks 21 and under — just guesstimating — that looks like they need help, you can just call our main number, too," he said. "There’s staff here 24/7, so it doesn’t matter if it’s 3 a.m. Especially if it’s during a Code Blue, even if we’re at max capacity, we’ll find a mat and put that person in the office or cafeteria for the night, and figure out what the next best steps are in the morning.”
While you might not be able to donate your time during Code Blue, certain shelters readily welcome donations like winter coats and gloves.
“We’ll take any warm clothing, really, and are always in need of socks and underwear — especially men’s underwear,” said Eliza Mongeau, former hospitality coordinator for Hub of Hope, a daytime service center for the city’s homeless in Suburban Station.
Operated by the city, SEPTA, and Project HOME, the center sees anywhere from 350 to 450 people pass through daily.
“So many people are coming in every day that all of the donations go very quickly,” explained Stephanie Lin, Project HOME’s former manager of annual giving and special events. “We can always use more items.”
Lin noted that toiletries and bath towels are in high demand, too, for the showers that the center offers to those who need them.
Hub of Hope is open for drop-offs daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It’s encouraged to call (215-309-5225) ahead if you have a large number of items. Socks and underwear must be brand-new to be accepted, but all other items — hats, sweaters, sweatpants, and jackets — can be gently used (no excessive stains or holes).
“To have warm clothes and be comfortable really does have a major impact in their overall well-being,” Mongeau said. “It’s often a small gesture for people to donate an item, but it’s a huge game-changer for the folks that receive the items.”