TAMPA — Forced to open earlier and more often this season than in the past, emergency cold weather shelters across Tampa Bay are facing blown budgets and a shortage of supplies just weeks into winter.
As a break from the cold weather arrives today, the shelters are using the moment of warmth to take stock of what's yet to come from a trying winter.
"We survived December, but are short of supplies and funds for the rest of the winter," said Sarah Snyder, executive director of the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless. "If January is anything like it was last year, then we're in a world of hurt."
After forecasts of a mild winter and budget cuts, Snyder said the coalition budgeted for eight to 10 cold weather openings this season. That number already has been met with eight openings this month alone, compared with one by this time last year.
In Hillsborough County, shelters have opened 11 times this season, while they opened only three times last winter before the end of the year. The county is now on track to surpass last winter's 31 cold weather openings, which were among the most of any winter, said Jim Silverwood, the shelter coordinator for Hillsborough County.
"We're already a third of the way there, and we're not out of December yet," he said.
That thought frightens Maggie Rogers, housing director for the Salvation Army of Tampa, which serves as an emergency shelter in addition to its role as a year-round shelter.
"We're usually not faced with this in December, it's usually late January when it's just getting started into cold weather nights," Rogers said. "We've got however many more cold weather nights to go so we are definitely going to feel the crunch soon."
The cold coupled with fewer monetary donations than usual means the shelter has to provide more with less, Rogers said.
Shelters in both counties could use more food, blankets and coats for children and adults.
Metropolitan Ministries, which serves as a cold weather shelter for women and children and provides meals to two other Hillsborough cold weather shelters — in addition to its year-round services — is feeling the same strain.
"If we are behind budget in December, then it can affect how we serve the community the rest of year," said Tim Marks, the president of Metropolitan Ministries. "We are concerned about it and will have to make adjustments accordingly."
It doesn't help that the number of families needing year-round help has doubled since last year, he added.
In Pinellas, shelters are also seeing more homeless. On Tuesday night, a record 445 people sought shelter.
Snyder said the increase makes sense given the economic times.
"We're seeing a big increase of people on the street," she said. "We're seeing people in the street who have never been there before and having a very hard time coping. They're not used to not having enough money to live."
For Tracy Blackmon, a 50-year-old man who has lived on the streets of Tampa for two years, the number of people showing up at the cold weather shelters is what keeps him out most nights.
"I'm claustrophobic," he said, "and the shelters are more packed this year than last."
Blackmon and some other homeless people who were gathered outside a soup kitchen in Tampa on Wednesday afternoon agreed that many of the new faces on the streets seemed to come from St. Petersburg, where panhandling was banned on city streets this year.
"We're sure the number of people without shelter has increased in these economic times," said Lesa Weikel of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.
Though the shelters do provide warmth for the night, Blackmon did lament the fact that people have to leave them in the early morning each day — forcing them to face the elements.
"There's nowhere else to go after that," Blackmon said.
For the shelters, mornings and warm days like today offer a chance to breathe.
"We are looking forward to a stretch of 70 degree days for staff here," Marks said. "We have a very dedicated and also a very tired staff and we are looking forward to a little bit of a break."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374.