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Camden building is refuge for the homeless

By day, it's the waiting area of a drab county administration building, where residents file government paperwork. By night, it's part slumber party and part refuge, a last chance for dozens of homeless people who could otherwise freeze to death.

CAMDEN, N.J. - By day, it's the waiting area of a drab county administration building, where residents file government paperwork.

By night, it's part slumber party and part refuge, a last chance for dozens of homeless people who could otherwise freeze to death.

The lobby of the Aletha Wright Administration Building across from Camden City Hall is open on the coldest winter nights, through a Camden County program that has been busy during this chilly beginning of 2009.

After bureaucrats leave for the day, dozens of people with nowhere else to stay unwrap blankets and sleeping bags. They play cards, talk about football, eat chips, and fall asleep in the hoods of their coats.

"We're just trying to keep people safe," said Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez, who started the warming center three years ago. "This gives them a little reprieve from the cold so in the morning we're not scraping people off the ground because it's so cold."

The city shelters are generally filled on cold nights, organizers said. Typical resting spots are all exposed to the elements: abandoned houses, known to the homeless as bandos; areas under bridges and between warehouses; park benches.

And grates with billowing hot air, a common bed for homeless across the river, don't exist in Camden.

So that leaves the lobby.

Rodriguez, a graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School, said the issue is personal. Years ago, her great-uncle froze to death on a bench in Philadelphia.

She has personified their ordeal by nicknaming the homeless "Wandas of the World," for a homeless woman around town named Wanda and for the similar-sounding word wanderer.

The homeless often hang out in the Market Street building during the day, she said, visiting the Board of Social Services upstairs and getting out of the cold.

"They're already here, so we figured, why don't we keep it open all night long?" she said.

The county health officer makes the call on which nights - code-blue nights - require opening the lobby. The decision is based on duration and level of wind chill, precipitation and temperature. Countywide, towns are instructed to bring those on the streets to the lobby during code blues.

Mike Rego, 34, a father from Pittsburgh, got to the Wright lobby on his own. He said he relapsed into heroin addiction about six weeks ago, and now his bed on cold nights is a red blanket on the red-tiled floor near the lobby security desk.

He ended up in Camden because, as he put it, "if you had an addiction to cheeseburgers, and you were told the best cheeseburgers were in Milwaukee, Wis., you would go to Milwaukee."

The two security guards do their first wake-up call at 5:15 a.m., and by 6, when a cleaning crew arrives, Rego heads around the corner to a Dunkin' Donuts store, where he sits until he is kicked out for not buying anything.

Then it's over to a McDonald's. Same drill.

The rest of the day often goes like this: He hops on the RiverLine train without buying a ticket, gets off at a random town, steals a large box of candy from a convenience store, and brings it back to Camden to sell to a bodega for $10.

He buys a bag of heroin with the money and shoots it. Then he walks and walks. If it's cold enough, his day ends back in the lobby.

If not, "I just won't sleep." If he gets really tired - or if the heroin stops masking the pain in his feet from walking so much - he'll find a bando.

"Sometimes I pray that they lock me up" so he can find a way to recover, he said.

Rego said most of the homeless in the lobby are hooked on drugs or alcohol. When asked about one group on a blanket, he said: "That's mental health."

To protect the homeless, and to prevent the warming center from being overrun by those who don't need it, county officials have not publicized the program.

But it is run with efficiency.

Disinfectant is sprayed when necessary, and paper cups are left out for the water fountain. The bathroom is open, available for hand-washing and tooth-brushing but not showering. The lights are kept on all night.

Some keep their heads under jackets, sleeping bags or blankets, and couples spoon as if they were alone in a bedroom at home. In one corner, a woman spreads out snacks - chips, candy and soda - for anyone who's hungry.

Rodriguez said the homeless in the lobby "police themselves," and there have been no major incidents.

On a visit last week, one woman began cursing and complaining about a man. One of two guards walked over, gave the man a warning - "You have two strikes," she said - and the situation was defused.

A police officer also walked in to check on things.

This all costs about $10,000 a year - $260 for the guards and electricity each night, averaging 30 to 40 days annually, according to Rodriguez.

"It's nominal," she said. "Consider what it would cost if we didn't do it."

A group smoking cigarettes outside the lobby said that if the warming center weren't there, they would be freezing to death. Several said they were angry with the government because the lobby is their only refuge.

"Why do people have to go here?" asked a 42-year-old who would give his name only as Jack. "You see how many people are in here. Where can they go?"

A 38-year-old with long hair, Angel, said: "Ain't no future in Camden."

"Do you see how many houses have been burned down and just sit there?" he asked. "If I was rich, if I was wealthy, I'd build the biggest shelter in New Jersey."

There are services for the homeless in Camden County, including five homeless shelters, all in the city, for a total of about 220 beds. But according to a survey done last January by the nonprofit Corporation for Supportive Housing, there are 541 homeless adults and 181 children in the county, and advocates believe the number now is far beyond that.

Those at the warming center said they wait in line for shelter, only to be turned away for space. Others said they do not like that shelters require ID, Social Security numbers, and a willingness to get addiction treatment or public assistance.

Things are less official in the lobby. The homeless need only sign a clipboard, and while capacity in the lobby is 60, "if it's 5 degrees outside, who are you going to tell no?" Rodriguez said.

On Tuesday, 71 had checked in by 9 p.m.

Advocates believe permanent housing, not temporary shelter, is the answer. A University of Pennsylvania expert on homelessness, Dennis P. Culhane, said the fact that the lobby warming center is so popular "reveals a need, a very real and obvious need, and the need is for housing."

Rodriguez called the warming center a temporary crutch, and said the county is working on other solutions.

In the meantime, "these are people who won't die tonight," she said, looking around the lobby.

"That makes me happy."