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As bitter cold sets in, shelters feel the strain

Updated 2:45 pm, Saturday, January 4, 2014

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BRIDGEPORT -- As people dig and plow their way out of the latest winter storm, most have shrugged off the fairly moderate snowfall.

But for others, fierce winds and dangerously low temperatures have driven them to local shelters seeking a hot meal and a place to sleep with beds and cots at a premium.

With Friday's daytime highs in the upper teens, shelters throughout Fairfield County extended their hours to help people stay warm. They also pulled out extra cots and sleeping mats to give them a place to rest.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Friday at an emergency briefing in Hartford that shelters across the state were operating at 120 percent of their usual capacity.

At the Bridgeport Rescue Mission, 40-year-old Pedro Sanchez said Friday night that he was grateful to be sleeping in a tidy bed with a red blanket at the shelter house on Fairfield Avenue.

On past winter nights, Sanchez said he has braved the elements to sleep outside.

"This time it will get worse," he said. "I'm glad for God, that he put me some place other than the street."

Many shelters, including the Bridgeport Rescue Mission, have clients leave during the day so staff can clean and administer other programs in the sleeping space. But as cold snow blew across the city Friday, the shelter allowed people to stay for the day to read books and newspapers and to watch television.

"We just make it fit," said the Rev. Terry Wilcox, executive director of the mission. "We've had a lot of people in here all day long. We're usually in better shape."

Dozens of people were expected to sleep at the shelter house Friday night, and staff were preparing to set up sleeping mats in a common room if they didn't have enough beds. In addition to a place to sleep, the shelter provided showers and a hot meal of pasta with meat sauce, garlic bread, salad and dessert.

Although the snowstorm has passed, the pressure on area shelters likely won't lift anytime soon. Bridgeport and the surrounding communities are in for a roller coaster forecast this week.

There's a chance of snow Sunday, but that gives way to temperatures in the mid-40s on Monday that could return to the single digits on Tuesday. The rest of the week is forecast to be in the 20s, with the possibility of more snow on Thursday.

In Milford, Donald deGraffenried, the director of the Beth-El Center, said the shelter planned to extend its hours for its overnight "no-freeze" program.

"But like many shelters, we are constrained on space," he said. "Right now, we have women in our chapel and men are sleeping in the soup kitchen."

Susan Agamy, executive director of the Spooner House in Shelton, said no one is being turned away, but the overnight beds there are full.

Agamy said the center offers 36 beds for families and other homeless people enrolled in a variety of programs, and six beds for overnight use. The volume of people seeking an overnight stay has forced the center to place some in sleeping bags on the floor.

But as overnight temperatures drop to levels not seen in more than a decade, shelter leaders and public officials are urging people to find a way to stay indoors and to check on those around them.

"With bitter cold temperatures forecast over the next 48 hours, we're asking residents to check on any elderly neighbors or those with special needs," said Marc Dillon, a spokesman for Stratford Mayor John Harkins. "Also, remember to keep pets indoors in the extreme cold."

Anyone requiring help this weekend or during the week can get information about shelters by calling 2-1-1.

For full forecast updates, follow online coverage at http://www.ctpost.com.

Digital Editor Jim Shay contributed to this report.