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Code Blue Initiative musters countywide resources to aid homeless


Elizabeth, NJ – The cold weather collided with a cold economy last winter, and the result was a skyrocketing number of Union County residents in need of shelter.  Union County agencies and communities stepped in with the Code Blue Emergency Shelter Initiative, reaching out to connect the homeless with a warm, safe place to stay.  As a model for innovation and effectiveness, Code Blue has received the 2009 Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties.

Union County’s Code Blue initiative is the first and only countywide service of its kind in New Jersey.

“Because of the dedication of county personnel, municipal agencies, and non-profit community organizations all working together, Code Blue has helped to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens are protected and cared for,” said Union County Freeholder Alexander Mirabella.

A Code Blue alert starts with the Union County Office of Emergency Management, which transmits warnings of potentially life-threatening weather from the National Weather Service.   The threshold for activating Code Blue is 25 degrees, or 32 degrees with precipitation.

The alert goes out to the county’s Department of Human Services, which notifies emergency shelters, community organizations, and the County Police.  The County Police get the word out to law enforcement personnel in all 21 municipalities.

The early warning gives communities more time to identify and locate people potentially in need of help.  Shelters prepare extra beds using cots provided by the County.  County and municipal police go on the lookout for persons needing shelter, and assist them with transportation.

The need for Code Blue emerged after a recent survey indicated that 842 adults and 320 children are homeless daily in Union County.  The homeless population tends to “fall between the cracks” of mainstream social services, with many being unaware that help is available, or unable to get transportation.

Along with providing temporary shelter, Code Blue helps tackle issues related to chronic homelessness.  Overuse of hospital emergency rooms is one such example.  Persons seeking emergency shelter on a Code Blue alert are screened for eligibility for a variety of services by the county’s Division of Social Services.

Last winter was Code Blue’s second year of operation.  From November 2008 to March 2009, 75 alerts were called and 500 placements were made.  In the previous year, only 58 alerts were called and 150 placements were made.  Colder weather, a souring economy and the foreclosure crisis contributed to more than triple the number of placements this year.

“Thanks to the initiative and foresight of those who worked to develop Code Blue, the system was up and running before the economic crisis hit, and the entire community was ready to go the extra mile to help our fellow citizens in need,” said Mirabella.