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Shelter swelter? 

Residents bemoan the heat at homeless center, but director swears things are cool

A storm-tinged sunset has nearly vanished when Scott Dye feels the night's first raindrops at America the Beautiful Park. Relaxing on a bench with two friends, he seems to weigh each drop against the value of a few more minutes spent outside, before the 10 p.m. curfew at the homeless shelter where he and the others are staying.

"I don't want to go back there," Dye says mournfully. When asked why, he laughs evasively and says, "The words that describe it, you can't write in your newspaper."

Later, Dye returns to the R.J. Montgomery New Hope Center south of downtown carrying a thermometer provided by the Indy. He watches it as 96 other men — three short of capacity for single men at the shelter — settle into their bunks for the night.

Though the outside temperature only hit 88 degrees that day, Dye reports the next morning that the temperature inside broke into the 90s around 10:30 p.m., and had dropped only to around 85 degrees by morning.

And with that, he loses the previous night's restraint.

"I don't know what else to say about it — it's fucking nasty," Dye says, describing the heat and the stale air. "There are 100 dudes in there quaffing each others' fart and feet smells."

Worse, they're sharing germs. In close to two months staying at the Salvation Army's local shelter, Dye says, he's been sick to his stomach and developed a hacking cough, often drawing up thick, green mucous. In late June, he signed a petition lamenting conditions at the shelter, putting "still coughing, one month" next to his signature.

Close to 160 other names appear on the petition, some with descriptions of illness.

"Got sick 3rd day I came here — still sick been here six weeks," wrote one man. Women stay in a separate room at the shelter, but one wrote that she came down with pneumonia her second week there.

The petition gives signers the assurance their names will be kept out of the "public eye." But one man, like Dye, points to what could be the crux of the matter.

"Stayed there twice, I became ill both times," he wrote. "Complained to staff to no avail."

'Pretty bad in there'

The petition was started by another shelter resident who read in the Independent about Ken Brown, who described being sick at New Hope repeatedly over four months last winter and spring (see "Patching the net," News, June 18). After gathering all the signatures, the resident — who asked that his name not be printed — dumped the crumpled, 10-page document at the Independent, with no instructions regarding what to do with it.

Brown, who signed his name to page 7, says he's just happy someone is trying to get things changed.

"It's pretty bad in there," he says.

That opinion is not shared by Gene Morris, director of the shelter, who says he's been sick only once in 14 years working on-site. While some spread of disease is inevitable in a "community living" situation, he says, much could be prevented if residents washed their hands more frequently. And he's adamant that the place is kept clean and cool, usually between 72 and 74 degrees.

"I have a $6,000 utility bill every month," says Morris, explaining later that's the high end of a range that starts around $4,000.

He asked to see the petition, but the Indy declined because of the petition's pledge of anonymity.

The shelter, which was operated by the Red Cross for more than 20 years before the Salvation Army took over in 2004, fills much of a low, flat 21,000 square-foot structure south of downtown on Sierra Madre Street. Separate, windowless areas hold single men, women and families. It runs on a budget of around $800,000 a year, mostly from grants and private donations.

Dye and other residents say the air inside often feels better on weekends, when an employee sometimes props open the outside doors and positions a fan to get air moving. Morris acknowledges that happens, but says it's against policy and generally "counterproductive to the central air system." It may have gotten hot one night recently, he acknowledges, when one air conditioning unit broke down.

The camping option

Tom Barr, sitting in the shade outside the shelter on a Friday afternoon, doesn't buy Morris' claim that the AC is kept on.

"They shut it off at dinner time," he says, or else the AC just can't handle the load. "You sweat all night long."

Barr is thinking about camping out instead, something Dye finds unappealing.

"I'm not about to be out there with bums and knife fights," he says. "I'm not choosing that lifestyle."

Dye, 30, grew up in Colorado Springs, and says he's held jobs at call centers, restaurants and computer repair shops. Now unemployed, he faces hundreds of dollars in bills each month to get medicine for his bipolar disorder, a burden complicating his efforts to find new shelter.

Now applying for federal disability payments, he sees that happening soon. But in the meantime, he's hoping shelter operators see fit to open the doors a little more often, or maybe to twist down the knob on the AC: "I'd like to see that people get treated humanely."

lane@csindy.com

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