Beating the heat: Shelters poised to open in Belleville

News-DemocratJune 17, 2014 

Just in time for the mercury to shoot up as the official start of the summer season nears, local leaders have come up with a new way for vulnerable segments of the population to beat the heat.

Belleville leaders on Monday night made changes to the city's emergency shelter ordinance to allow local churches to provide heating and cooling shelters when temperatures become extreme.

"The mayor can declare when shelters should be open," Mayor Mark Eckert said. "That determination will use the same standards the United Way uses to determine when its shelters are open."

Eckert said the idea was hatched in ongoing meetings between elected officials, local church leaders and people representing local charitable organizations about how to address the city's homelessness issue.

"We have been meeting on and off for many months with a group of churches, the police chief and the fire chief," Eckert said. "This is going to help us be more organized when severe weather takes place."

The temperature reached 94 degrees under sunny skies in the metro-east Tuesday with a heat index of 101, according to the National Weather Service. Similar weather is expected Wednesday when the high temperature will again crank up to the mid-90s.

Eckert said the new shelters won't be ready in time for this mini heat wave which would narrowly miss meeting standards for the shelters to open. But he said they'll be poised to open the next time the mercury makes an extended stay near 100 degrees.

"We have several churches right now that are fine tuning the locations of their shelters and other issues," Eckert said. "We'll be releasing a list as soon as it is complete. But people can certainly call city hall or check the city website for information.

"We'll also provide a list to the United Way. I know it's going to be hot (Wednesday.) But it's only going to be a couple of days. We'll probably be ready to roll in the next 48 hours or so."

The changes to the ordinance allow the shelters to be open from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. on days when the temperature or heat index reaches dangerous levels. The shelters will be staffed from volunteers from the churches.

Sites could be opened under various scenarios, according to Eckert. They include when an excessive heat advisory or warning is issued by the National Weather Service, when the heat index is expected to reach 105 degrees or the air temperature reaches at least 100 degrees for an extended period.

The Rev. Larry Drury, who is also spokesman for the charitable organization Angels of St. Clair County, which is trying to address homelessness issues in the area, said the spectrum of people who need shelter from the heat and cold extends far beyond the homeless.

"It affects a lot of people," Drury said. "A lot more than you think. And it's not just homeless people. There are also a lot of senior citizens who might be trying to budget their air condition costs, living on a very tight budget, because they're trying to afford their prescription medicine. They'd rather turn off their air conditioner than go without their medicine."

Drury said local churches have tried to help people who can't afford their utility bills with individual donations. But he said the lingering bad economy has out-stripped assistance organizations resources.

"I want to be able to help people keep their air conditioning on in their home," Drury said. "But when they're more than $1,000 behind on their bill to the power company, there is no way we can afford that."

It works better, Drury said, to be able to help a large group of people when they need it most than to concentrate their resources on a few cases.

Eckert agreed that it important to prioritize a limited amount of resources.

"It's not rocket science," he said. "We're just trying to organize things. I think we can do better."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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