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Shelters difference between life and death for homeless

LORAIN — With the temperature predicted to be below zero tonight and in the single digits Tuesday, finding shelter is a matter of life and death for homeless people.

All of the 50 beds for men at the St. Joseph Overnight Homeless Shelter, 317 W. 15th St., were occupied Sunday night, according to Deacon Lou Maldonado, program director. Just two of the 16 beds for women were available.

Maldonado said if all beds are full and people come seeking shelter, they won’t be turned away. He said the extra residents would sleep on mats overnight until other accommodations are made at the shelter, which is open 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. between October and April. In 2012-13, people had to sleep on mats five or six times, but Maldonado said it hasn’t happened this season.

Sandy Humphrey, Haven Center director of homeless services at Lorain’s other shelter, said about 47 of the 68 beds at the center at 1536 E. 30th St. were in use.

The St. Joseph shelter is in the former St. Joseph Church, which closed in 2010. The building was built in 1896 and problems with meeting the fire code have shelter organizers hoping to move to a new location at 213 W. 14th St., in October.

Despite fire code problems, Maldonado said the building’s boiler works well and the shelter is always warm. While residents aren’t usually allowed at the shelter between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Maldonado said exceptions are occasionally made in extremely cold weather.

Maldonado said when the temperature goes down, the shelter fills up. The busiest months are December, January, February and March.

Maldonado, program director since the shelter opened in 1995, said most homeless people understand staying outside in frigid weather is deadly. While some residents have alcohol, drug or mental illness problems, Maldonado said fights are rare and most residents respect one another and the staff of 13, which includes two part-timers.

However, Maldonado said some homeless people resist coming to the shelter even during intense cold due to a lack of freedom and privacy.

“It gets a little uncomfortable sleeping in a shelter with 49 other men (and) sharing showers and bathrooms,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado said he has been unsuccessfully trying to convince four men who’ve been sleeping in tents by the Black River near Elyria Avenue and West 21st Street to come to the shelter. Resident Kristen Vaughan said she can’t imagine trying to survive outside in freezing or below freezing conditions.

The 22-year-old Vaughan, who said she suffers from a bipolar disorder, said she came to the shelter and stayed between 2011 and 2012 after fleeing an abusive relationship. Vaughan said she found public housing last year, but left due to safety concerns after a neighbor threatened her.

Vaughan said she is staying until she can save enough money for an apartment.

“Without this place, I don’t know where I’d be,” she said. “It just makes me wonder about everybody else who can be in this situation with how cold it is outside right now.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.

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