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For Portland's unhoused population, this weekend's arctic blast could be deadly

A last-minute move by the city ensures 65 overnight beds will be opened during the cold weather when shelters say they've been consistently full.

PORTLAND, Maine — After calls to open an emergency shelter in advance of the freezing cold temperatures Maine will see this weekend, the City of Portland tapped the Salvation Army for a 65-bed shelter in its gymnasium.

You can find it off Cumberland Avenue on the peninsula, right across the street from Portland High School. The address is 297 Cumberland Avenue.

It will be open Friday from 3 p.m. to Saturday at 8 a.m., and Saturday from 3 p.m. to Sunday at 8 a.m. 

"We got the approval within the hour because it's an emergency, and when things are that dire, we are the Salvation Army and we can pivot from whatever we're doing and quickly respond to those needs," Captain Michael Harper said.

Harper said the city came to drop off cots just before noon, Thursday.

"It means an awful lot," Harper said. "There is no plan in place, there is no book or manual to go to, this is unfolding in real-time and the need is overwhelming... those of us in social services feel it is completely overwhelming."

Harper said the lack of affordable housing in Maine, coupled with the increasing number of people experiencing homelessness in Portland, makes helping people much harder.

"People need to take heed and go inside... you only get cold snaps like this every couple of years," Harper said.

Wicked cold air is set to move into the region from Canada and will drop temperatures into the negatives, with "feels like" temps even colder.

It continues to get even colder as we go into Saturday, with even more frigid air moving in. High temperatures will struggle to get above zero as the winds continue. This will drop the "feels like" temperatures to -40 degrees and some below -50 degrees.  

For those on the ground educating people experiencing homelessness about resources to access, the race is on.

"This week has been very busy," Andrew Bove of Preble Street said. "It's been a while since we've seen temps hit this low."

Bove added most of the work to bring people to safety comes the day of, or just hours before the deadly cold sets in.

"People don't have the luxury of planning days in advance," Bove said. "It's a perfect storm... you have bad weather, full shelters, an opioid epidemic, lack of affordable housing; it's a perfect storm and it's happening this weekend."

"It feels like you are going into battle. We do it because we love it."

For those who are unhoused, like Scott Smith, it's some of the coldest weather they've seen.

"It can kill you," Smith said, who said he's been homeless around Portland for the last 20 years. "I don't think there is much you can do to prepare yourself without using gear you can't afford."

Smith said he knows people who are trying to survive this weekend without seeking shelter.

"If you are on the street these next couple of days, you are taking your life into your own hands, which I do not condone," Smith said. "I worry about people dying."

Bove, at Preble Street, said the reason many people don't seek shelter is due to fear of abuse, drug addiction, and mental health issues.

"There are people that believe they are prepared enough and that is sad. They don't feel comfortable in shelters," Bove said. "There are people who will be out all weekend and we worry."

For a list of warming centers for both day and night use throughout the state of Maine, you can click this link.

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