Saturday, October 25, 2014

Buck Up Bucks County: Advocates need new bus for looming Code Blue season

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2014

The first winter she lived in her car was the scariest experience of her life, Kim said.

“I had no one to talk to. I’m in a frozen car. I have all these blankets, and then the snow kept covering my car,” the 59-year-old Bucks County woman said. “At one point, I thought I was going to die because I woke up and the whole car was covered.”

That was eight winters ago — well before Bucks County enacted its Code Blue emergency shelter program in 2009.
Today, Kim is still living in her car, which she parks in a Lower Bucks shopping center parking lot.
But when the temperature drops to dangerous levels, she seeks shelter in one of the four Lower Bucks area churches that host the Code Blue program between Dec. 1 and March 31. Advocates for Homeless & Those in Need, an all-volunteer nonprofit group, runs the Code Blue program for Bucks County.
“They take you off the streets, they take you in a church, they give you a cot, they feed you,” she said. “These people have been a blessing to me since I’ve been out here. They helped me fix a couple cars, too, when I wasn’t working. They’re my best friends.”
AHTN — as the group is called by the people it serves and the volunteers — also provides year-round transportation for the homeless and needy, courtesy of Delilah, a 12-year-old, 13-seat used passenger bus the group bought with donations in 2011.
Delilah shuttles guests to shared dinners up to 26 times a month and monthly rejuvenation station visits, where the homeless can get showers and haircuts. The bus is also used to haul supplies between temporary shelters and to reach out to those in need who aren’t part of AHTN’s regular transportation runs.
Delilah’s age and condition, plus the work she does, is why the Advocates group was chosen by the Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer as one of two local nonprofits that will benefit from the second round of the Bucks up Bucks County campaign, which seeks to raise $200,000. The first $60,000 will be used for a handicapped-accessible bus. The rest is earmarked to renovate the bathrooms at the Family Service Association’s Bucks County Emergency Homeless Shelter in Bristol Township.
A recent weekend meal held at the Calvary Baptist Church of Bristol attracted 51 people, but only 17 needed Delilah’s help to get there. That required two round trips. When the host churches are farther away, the bus typically makes only one trip with 13 guests.
But without hesitation, volunteers say Delilah’s most critical work is during the winter. Bucks County called 71 Code Blue nights last year, up from 53 the year before, AHTN’s director, Sandy Mullican, said. A Code Blue is called when the temperatures are expected to drop below 20 degrees.
Last year, most of the 15,000 miles the bus logged were for transporting homeless guests during that particularly brutal winter. A typical December can bring more than two dozen people to the temporary church shelters, and as many as 50 to every Code Blue night, Mullican said.
During Code Blue, the bus routinely makes two and three trips to the designated bus stops that cover the roughly 20-mile radius around Bristol Township that is ATHN’s service area. That means a single round trip can add 40 miles or more to the odometer.
Last year, 143 guests spent at least one night at a Code Blue temporary shelter, Mullican said. She knows because that is the number of personal bedding bags the group created.
On their first night at a Code Blue shelter, guests are issued personalized plastic bags containing the disposable sheets, blankets and pillows that cover the cots, Mullican said. The next morning, before Delilah brings them back to the bus stops, the bedding is returned to the bag, which is stored until the guest returns. Fresh disposable linens are issued after about a month of use.
Since the county implemented Code Blue in 2009, ATHN has only been unable to open a shelter two or three nights because of a lack of volunteers, Mullican said, noting that Delilah has delivered every single time — despite her age and mileage.
During two of the biggest snowstorms last year, volunteer Doug Moyer worked as a bus attendant, accompanying the bus drivers who picked up homeless guests. The front heater/defroster on the bus wasn’t enough to keep the windshield warm and ice-free, so the wipers stopped working.
At every stop, Moyer — who’ll be a co-director of Code Blue this year — acted as a human windshield wiper, using a broom to keep the windshield clear during the three stops to take guests to the shelter in a Lower Makefield church.
“It’s harrowing, in the mist of the storm, picking people up,” Moyer said.
It’s a tight fit, too, he said, because the guests often wear heavy layers of clothing that are soaking wet from waiting in the rain and snow to be picked up and carrying belongings they’re afraid to leave behind.
Because the entire heating system of the bus is so iffy, riders seek out the back seat on the left side, where the heater is located, Moyer said.
With a second bus, Moyer and Mullican believe they can expand their mission of mercy into areas they simply can’t reach now, including Bensalem and Middletown. And having a bus that, unlike Delilah, is handicapped-accessible would allow AHTN to help what they said is a growing number of homeless and needy people who use wheelchairs.
“Our bus is used for so many things. In many ways, she is ATHN’s single biggest asset,” Moyer said. “Delilah gets loaded up from floor to ceiling with our cots, our supplies, everything we can fit on her. We rely on Delilah for everything we do.”

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