The Morris County Sheriff’s Office participated Tuesday in a “Code Blue” meeting that brought together police, emergency management officials, medical and human services providers to plan for housing the homeless and at-risk individuals before severe winter weather arrives.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in May 2017 signed legislation requiring all county emergency management coordinators to establish a Code Blue program to shelter the homeless during severe weather.
Morris County’s homeless population included at least 388 individuals as of January 22, 2019, when a federally-mandated annual count called the Point In Time Count was conducted by service providers and other agencies. Homelessness in Morris County increased by 1 percent from 2015 to 2019, according to the count.
Morris County Office of Emergency Management Director Jeffrey Paul, along with Morris County Director of Human Services Sharon Yoo and Office of Temporary Assistance Division Director Gary Denamen, led the meeting designed to ensure that all 39 municipalities have a warming center designated should OEM activate a Code Blue.
The 2019 Point In Time Count identified 254 homeless people in Morristown; 20 in Dover; 17 in Morris Township; and seven in Denville.
Representatives of service providers, including Market Street Mission, Family Promise of Morris County, Homeless Solutions and others also identified at the meeting the housing stock and additional resources they have to share during emergencies. Wes Gaynor, Director of Programs and Services for Homeless Solutions, said the facility will have 18 beds available – 50 percent more than last winter – to house homeless during Code Blue events between December 1 and March 31, 2020.
The session was attended by Morris County Sheriff’s Office Chief Officer Kelley Zienowicz and Bureau of Corrections Sergeant Ray Dykstra. The Correctional Facility is apprised of Code Blue and available warming centers in the event a person has nowhere to go in severe weather upon discharge from the facility.
“Protecting vulnerable people during extreme weather is one of the guardian roles of law enforcement officers, who are typically aware of homeless and at-risk people in their communities and know what needs to be done to help those people survive the night,” Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon said.
The Sheriff’s Office’s Hope One mobile substance use resource and recovery vehicle, since April 3, 2017, also makes lengthy stops in Morris County towns at least twice a week, during which its staff encounter individuals in need of social services. Hope One’s services – Narcan training, guidance on addiction services and treatment programs, and mental health assistance – are supplemented by the Navigating Hope mobile program that assists people with housing, Food Stamps and other social service needs.
The law calls for a Code Blue alert to be activated when the National Weather Service forecasts and advisories predict that temperatures will reach 25 degrees or lower without precipitation, or 32 degrees or lower with precipitation, or when the wind chill factor will cause temperatures to be zero or below for a period of two hours or more.
Director Paul stressed that municipalities need to establish warming centers – even if a need isn’t anticipated – so that homeless and at-risk people aren’t shuffled to centers in other towns or sent as last resorts to hospitals, which need their beds for medical patients. Designated warming centers also can be used to accommodate people in event of a power outage, severe storm or other weather emergency, Director Paul said.
He noted that years ago, homeless people froze to death in Morris County, but coordination and communication has vastly improved since then between municipalities, the county and service providers.
“With the programs we have in place now, we should be able to prevent that,” Director Paul said.