Homeless advocates call for 'no-brainer' changes to ‘ridiculous’ PBC cold-weather shelter rules
Updated: Jun 17
THE DAY BEFORE the official start of summer, Lake Worth Beach city commissioners will spend time thinking about winter — specifically, how some of the city’s most vulnerable residents suffer during cold snaps.
A resolution commissioners will consider June 20 calls for Palm Beach County officials to adjust their criteria for opening cold weather shelters to the homeless.
The resolution, proposed by City Commissioner Christopher McVoy at the request of homeless advocates, asks the county to open its shelters when forecasts call for temperatures of 50 degrees or lower. The resolution also asks the county to announce plans to open the shelters at least 24 hours in advance.
Those proposed measures are in line with procedures used in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where shelters open when temperatures dip below 50 degrees.
Palm Beach County’s current policy declares a cold-weather emergency when temperatures are forecasted to be 40 degrees or less, or with a wind-chill factor of 35 degrees or less for at least four hours. The county announces the opening of the shelters at 11 a.m. on the day they open.
Those “retrograde” policies increase the risk of hypothermia for residents whose circumstances force them to live outside, said Jeff Weinberger, head of the October 22 Alliance to End Homelessness.
“We have a lot of leaders who talk about wanting to protect and do right with homeless people. Well, here is a case where they need to put up or shut up,’’ Weinberger said in an interview.
“To change the standard to the same standards it is in the two counties to the south is not asking a lot. It should be a no-brainer.’’
The Alliance asked McVoy to sponsor the resolution after county officials failed to respond to a written request by Weinberger in January to change their cold-weather emergency criteria.
“The bottom line is that your policy needs to change to a humane standard, and right now would be a great time for that change to occur by whatever means are at your disposal,’’ Weinberger said in an email to Emergency Management Director Mary Blakeney.
The email was sent Jan. 11, three days before the arrival of a weekend cold snap that saw temperatures in Lake Worth Beach plunge to 41 degrees.
He also reached out to County Mayor Gregg Weiss, whose district includes Lake Worth Beach. Weiss’ staff forwarded Weinberger’s concerns in an email to Blakeney. It’s not clear if Blakeney responded.
McVoy said he tried to share his concerns about the cold-weather policy with county officials earlier this year, too. “I didn't get much anywhere,’’ he said.
Weinberger said he’s hoping a formal resolution from elected leaders in a county municipality will carry the clout needed to get the attention of county emergency officials.
In a brief reply to questions from ByJoeCapozzi.com, Blakeney did not make any promises the criteria would change.
“Each year, Emergency Management reviews the Cold Weather Shelter Plan with our stakeholders. This process of review usually begins the third quarter of the calendar year,” she said in an email.
Blakeney did not respond to follow-up questions asking for the names of the stakeholders and if she would advocate for the changes outlined in Lake Worth Beach’s proposed resolution.
The number of homeless people in Palm Beach County jumped to 1,855, from 1,404 last year, according to a county survey conducted in January. Of that number, 1,169 were unsheltered in public parks, abandoned buildings, vehicles and camp sites. (The other 686 were living in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs.)
Among the many outdoor public places across the county frequented by the homeless is Bryant Park in downtown Lake Worth Beach.
Weinberger, who is based in Broward County, said he was shocked to learn about Palm Beach County’s cold-weather shelter policy in a ByJoeCapozzi.com story about homeless residents in Bryant Park enduring miserable conditions Christmas Eve night and Christmas morning.
It got as low as 41 degrees overnight Christmas Eve in Lake Worth Beach. The only shelter opened in Palm Beach County was 50 miles to the west in Belle Glade, where the temperatures were forecast to drop into the 30s. No shelters were opened east of Interstate 95.
“It’s a ridiculous policy for a county in South Florida,’’ he said. “We need to have a humane standard that is rooted in science.’’
Although the temperature “was not all that crazy,’’ especially compared to frigid weather in other parts of the United States, it was still uncomfortably cold, McVoy said.
“If you are down here in South Florida all year and you are outside, you are going to adapt to warmer temperatures. But when it’s cold you are not going to adapt,’’ he said.
It’s also dangerous.
Hypothermia occurs when an individual’s body temperature drops only a few degrees below 98 degrees. Lethal hypothermia can occur even at air temperatures as high as 60 or 70 degrees, according to a Kent State University study cited by McVoy in a staff report for the Lake Worth Beach resolution.
Hypothermia caused an average of roughly 350 deaths a year in the United States from 1979 to 2004, according to the Kent State study.
On Feb. 3, 2021, a homeless man died of hypothermia after spending the night outside in West Palm Beach, where the overnight temperatures ranged from 42 to 49 degrees, according to a Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s report. The man, whose body had a temperature of 75.6 degrees, also suffered from chronic alcoholism, which the ME report listed as a contributing factor in his death.
“If we can prevent one person from getting sick, let alone dying from cold weather, then we need to do it,” Weinberger said.
Shelters were opened during the January cold snap but without ample notice, said Randy Sportster Lewis, who runs South Florida Sanctuary, an advocacy and support group for the homeless.
“Everyone knew we were going down to freezing and still nothing could be done until it was too late to do buses or round up people freezing on the streets,’’ he said.
Lake Worth Beach's resolution is a “reasonable” request backed by science, said McVoy, who's expecting his fellow commissions to approve it.
If Lake Worth Beach passes the resolution, Weinberger said he may seek similar resolutions from West Palm Beach and other cities, with a goal of sending a clear message to county emergency officials.
“The bottom line,’’ he said, “is we need to get the county commission on board and get this done.’’
If nothing is changed, it will be up to advocates like Lewis and Weinberger to help make homeless people as comfortable as possible outdoors in the next cold snap.
“I am on the streets in Lake Worth each chilly day struggling to get hoodies and blankets on the unhoused folks who will need to be bundled and hidden before the temps ever reach the levels for even considering opening shelters for them,’’ Lewis said.
Weinberger said, "People are suffering and sometimes even dying because of not even the specific policy itself, but the culture that stands behind the policy."
© 2023 ByJoeCapozzi.com All rights reserved.
If you enjoyed this story, please help support our independent journalism by clicking the donation button in the masthead on our homepage.
About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.