In from the cold: A look at the Code Blue program in Bucks County

Timothy Riley, for the Times

The first thing one notices when speaking with Elizabeth Sullivan is the way in which she speaks of the homeless individuals who enter her care.

Her sentences are peppered with references to “guests” and “friends.” She deals not with clients or patients, but equal members of a community.

“We try to serve with dignity and compassion,” she asserted, in the hopes of fostering an environment in which “everybody’s the same.”

Sullivan is the program consultant for Advocates for Homeless and Those in Need, or AHTN. It’s a nonprofit that provides year-round outreach services for the economically marginalized population in Lower Bucks.

As part of its mission, AHTN administers the Code Blue Program in Lower Bucks. The program provides the homeless with temporary nighttime shelter during the winter.   

The county calls a “Code Blue” when the temperature reaches 26 degrees or below. Criteria like wind chill factor also influence the decision. However, the temperature benchmarks do not automatically guarantee the opening of shelters in Lower Bucks.

At this point, Sullivan and her colleagues spring into action. They must secure 18 volunteers to staff the program in order to open the shelter for the night. Sullivan will typically monitor the weather forecasts in advance in order to anticipate the program’s needs.

AHTN operates two buses that drive to designated pick-up locations in Bristol, Penndel, Morrisville and Levittown. During the 2015-16 season, AHTN traveled 3,549 miles in the course of conducting its mission.

The group partners with several churches in the area that open their doors free of charge to shelter the homeless. The partnering church changes each month, meaning the location of the shelter remains in flux.

At first glance, it seems like the program might be better served by operating out of two or more locations. The area of Lower Bucks is fairly wide. Moreover, a potential guest may be reluctant to leave an encampment to travel to a shelter 15 miles away.

However, this is a matter not of will, but of resources. Although the county gives AHTN supplies and funding for Code Blue, the group is powered by its network of volunteers. Over the course of four months, it is simply not feasible to rely on the same 18 people to operate the mission.

Meanwhile, the demand for services remains steady. According to Bucks County’s 2016 Point in Time Count, 530 people were in emergency shelter, transitional housing, or outdoors on the night of Jan. 27. The number represented a 9-percent increase from the prior year. AHTN itself has served 90 individuals during this Code Blue season.

“Right now, in subzero temperatures, we need to get people off the street,” said Sullivan. 

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