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Should more shelters open when it's brisk but not bone-chilling, or even daily?

PORT RICHEY — This week's blast of cold air caused a handful of churches and nonprofit groups to open their doors as cold weather shelters.

But what about when it's chilly — but not quite this cold?

County guidelines say cold weather shelters open when the temperature drops to 36 degrees and stays there for four hours. Both Tuesday and Wednesday nights easily cleared that mark.

County Commissioner Pat Mulieri wants to allow the shelters to open on more nights. She wants to increase the threshold to at least 45 degrees, maybe 50. She was volunteering outside the United Way office one night last week when the mercury dropped to about 50 degrees.

"Would you want to sleep outside in 50-degree weather?" Mulieri said. "I wouldn't keep my dogs outside in 50 degrees."

The move comes as east Pasco's only cold weather shelter, Chancey Road Christian Church in Zephyrhills, has stirred controversy by opening its doors to the homeless every night. Though any organization can operate on cold nights, the church needs a special zoning permit to run a daily shelter.

A neighborhood hearing on the church's request is scheduled for 6:30 tonight at the church, 34921 Chancey Road. County officials are allowing the daily shelter to temporarily stay open, pending a final hearing by county commissioners in March.

Jim Johnston, Pasco's emergency operations coordinator, said the 36-degree mark for cold shelters is a guideline based on recommendations from the county health department. When people are exposed to that level of cold for several hours, it poses a health and safety risk.

Both Pinellas and Hillsborough open their shelters when the temperature hits 40 degrees or below.

Many chronically homeless people tend to hunker down during warmer nights, Johnston said. If there's not a high demand, the county doesn't want to keep the shelters open.

"There isn't any magical money out there for opening cold weather shelters," Johnston said, adding that the shelters are staffed with volunteers. They also don't receive any county money to operate.

But Mulieri's idea has some appeal, especially during weeks like this when many folks are digging out their winter coats.

"Imagine what the guys in the woods are feeling like," said Eugene Ganaway, pastor of Impact Family Ministries in Port Richey, which took in 17 people Tuesday night. He said the cold weather brought more folks than he expected.

Jan Martini, the founder of Charley's Angels and Fresh Start, understands the sentiment. When the weather gets cold, she helps operate a shelter at Hope Lutheran Church in Hudson.

Unlike the Chancey Road church, she said, there is no dedicated building at Hope Lutheran for a shelter. Keeping volunteers is also a constant struggle.

"Trying to find somebody that could help fund that, especially in this economy, is a pipe dream," she said.

Martini described a frenzied preparation Tuesday in which she went to another church to pick up mattresses, headed home to load supplies into her truck and made a quick run to Winn-Dixie.

Unfortunately on Tuesday, the coldest night of the season so far, no one showed up at the church. She attributed that to an incorrect address on a Pasco Emergency Management message that listed open shelters. "It's really kind of sad," she said.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Should more shelters open when it's brisk but not bone-chilling, or even daily? 01/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 8:11pm]
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