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11/18/2014

Philly Issues First ‘Code Blue’ of Season: USciences Prof Explains What That Means to Homeless Population

MetrauxThose fortunate enough to be somewhere warm during this recent cold snap might wonder how Philadelphia’s homeless population can survive the frigid outdoor conditions, said Stephen Metraux, PhD, associate professor of health policy and public health at University of the Sciences.

“Data on how many homeless are stuck out in the cold is difficult to come by,” said Dr. Metraux. “The homeless population is notoriously challenging to count, as they usually strive to stay inconspicuous amidst the public spaces to which they are relegated.”

The best available number comes from the City of Philadelphia’s annual “Point in Time” count, when teams of volunteers canvass the shelters and streets and count the number of homeless people and families that they encounter. Of the estimated 5,500 homeless individuals counted on a January night in 2013, 388 of them were unsheltered. That figure is down from the 526 individuals recorded on a January night in 2012.

So how do these hundreds of homeless individuals survive below-freezing conditions? The first line of defense is provided by the City of Philadelphia, which implements a “Code Blue” on any night when temperatures fall under or hover around 20 degrees, said Dr. Metraux.

On Code Blue nights, outreach workers and police can bring in any homeless person to stay in a shelter or other public facility temporarily designated for overnight accommodations. No one gets turned away and, if necessary, a Court Ordered Transportation to Shelter can be quickly obtained to bring resistant individuals indoors on occasions when leaving a person outdoors may subject him or her to danger from the cold weather elements.

“Code Blue’s success is best indicated by the rarity of hypothermia deaths among homeless persons in the past few years,” said Dr. Metraux. “But Code Blue is at best a stopgap solution; the best solution for protecting the homeless from the elements is through renewed efforts to reduce homelessness.”

The number of homeless people living on the streets across Philadelphia has been declining over the previous few years, due largely to innovative programs that engage the most recalcitrant homeless persons and provide them with housing and services, he said. 

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