It was so cold even the moon didn’t want to come all the way out.
Just a narrow crescent shone down on the parking lot in an out-of-the-way corner of downtown Toms River where a white passenger van waited to take the least fortunate members of the Just Believe Inc. community to a warming shelter operated by the non-profit homeless outreach organization a few miles away.
Steven Reeves, one of that night’s guests at the warming shelter, was bundled up in a Carhart one-piece work suit that bitter Tuesday evening, waiting to have his temperature taken as a precaution against the surging coronavirus so he could board the van. Things could be worse, 58-year-old Reeves told another guest who had cursed the cold.
“I slept out in the rain the other night,” said Reeves, who was released from prison last year and now struggles with bi-polar disorder, seizures, partial blindness and other problems.
It was about 5 p.m., the regular pickup time for the Just Believe van, which on frigid nights shuttles men, women and sometimes children from downtown Toms River to the shelter, which is located in a township recreation center at Riverwood Park. The temperature was in the mid-30s, but the wind made it feel colder, and it would drop to 27 degrees overnight.
The warming shelter satisfies a requirement for Toms River and Ocean County under the state’s 2017 Code Blue law, which mandates that municipalities with a homeless population of 10 or more make such shelters available on nights when the temperature drops below freezing during the 5-month period between Nov. 1 and March 31. In Toms River, local officials set the shelter-opening threshold slightly warmer, at 35 degrees.
But operations at warming centers, like shelters of any kind, have been complicated by social distancing requirements and other measures to combat the coronavirus, which has spread with increasing speed and mortality alongside the onset of cold weather.
At the Just Believe warming shelter, for example, that means guests must wear breathing masks, have their temperatures taken and their pulse and blood-oxygen levels read before entering. Inside the recreation center-turned warming shelter, blue masking tape was laid on the floor of the downstairs dormitory to separate the cots by at least six feet, reducing the room’s capacity by one third.
“Downstairs, I could put 30 cots down on the floor, and this year, I could only put 20, so I have to put 10 cots upstairs if we get to capacity,” said Just Believe founder and CEO Paul Hulse, who said Just Believe is compliant with CDC guidelines on homeless shelters amid the coronavirus. If someone seeking shelter displays symptoms of the virus, Hulse said health officials are called.
And while advocates say homelessness has not spiked thus far during the virus-related recession thanks to the state moratorium on evictions, there has been a statewide space crunch at shelters due to their reduced capacity.
“The same challenges go for Code Blue that go for all shelters,” said Melissa Acree, executive director of NJ 211, a subsidiary of the United Way that refers callers to shelters and other social services.
Reeves was one of 17 Just Believe overnight guests Tuesday into Wednesday, Hulse said, after the shelter had its first night open, with 5 guests, on Friday, Nov. 7. Last winter, which was Just Believe’s first Code Blue season, the shelter provided 2,150 bed-nights for 192 different people, on a total of 79 dates.
It’s lights out at 9 p.m. in the downstairs dormitory, though the dining and lounge area upstairs stays open til 10 or so. The van takes guests back to the downtown pickup area at about 8 a.m., though Hulse said people with a job interview or some other appointment nearby can usually count on being dropped off at their destination.
Paul Kasparek was another one of Tuesday’s guests. Kasparek, a slender 43-year-old with sandy hair and glasses, fled an abusive household in the Czech Republic 19 years ago, and since then has struggled with depression, anxiety and treatment that he said did him more harm than good. He’s been living in a tent in a wooded area of Toms River, but Tuesday was too cold for its thin nylon walls, so he walked about a mile to the Just Believe pickup area from the local public library, where he had spent the afternoon.
Tuesday would be only his second night at the Just Believe shelter, after a homeless acquaintance had told him about it.
“I feel very embarrassed,” said Kasparek, who said he has no income other than what friends and strangers give him. “I feel like I’m a burden to people.”
Reeves, Kaparek and other guests are just a part of the close-knit but expanding community that has formed around Just Believe since its founding last year, when it took over the local Code Blue function from a pair of Toms River churches, the First Assembly of God and its overflow backup, Alive Again Alliance.
In addition to its guests, the Just Believe community includes elected officials, business owners and other taxpayers in the surrounding area, its small staff and hundreds of volunteers, some of whom were guests themselves before getting back on their feet.
CORONAVIRUS RESOURCES: Live map tracker | Businesses that are open | Homepage
During the warmer months, the organization provides non-shelter outreach services, locating and identifying homeless people and helping to get them housing, employment, healthcare, drug addiction counseling or treatment.
On Code Blue nights at the warming shelter, Just Believe serves dinner, sometimes donated directly by local eateries. Toms River resident Anthony Schifilliti, who owns Nino’s Coal Fired Pizza in Brick, stopped by on Tuesday with his 15-year-old daughter, Sophia, to drop off 10 fresh pies. Schifilliti said he brought Sophia along so she would see, first-hand, that she had neighbors in Toms River less fortunate than their family, but also that there were people like them eager to help.
“It’s definitely cool, and it’s good that I get to see this at a young age,” said Sophia, a sophomore at Toms River High School North. “Not a lot of kids get to see this.”
Members of the Toms River Township Council who were visiting the shelter on Tuesday said the recreation center is largely dormant during the winter, so the warming center does not conflict with other uses. Their constituents support its use by Just Believe, they said.
“It kind of shows the idea of NIMBY, not in my back yard, is not really true,” said Councilman Terrance Turnbach, who was there with Council President Maria Maruca and Councilwoman Laurie Huryk.
Hulse, the Just Believe founder, is a 41-year-old Ocean County native and former plumber who came on hard times starting with a debilitating car crash in 2012, followed by his bother-in-law’s fatal overdose and his sister’s death from a liver ailment in 2013, which he called, “probably the worst year of my life.”
“It was a long spiral,” said Hulse, who lives in Toms River.
But he said he turned his life around after joining an organization known as Grief Share at his wife’s urging, and later was ordained as a non-denominational pastor. He said Just Believe has an annual budget of $150,000, financed by grants and donations, and employs two full-time employees and one part-timer.
One is James Havens, a burly 43-year-old former bouncer who is the warming shelter’s “overnight facilitator,” which includes security guard. He’s also a former guest, who now has an apartment in Berkley Township’s Bayville section.
“I’d been on streets a good 15 years,” Havens said. “In and out of jail. A lot of drugs. So, I’ve seen it all.” Another former guest, Miguel Monteiro, is among 240 volunteers with Just Believe. He was at the shelter on Tuesday taking temperatures and registering that night’s guests at the front door.
“To give back — I used to be a regular here,” said Monteiro, 45, who works at QuickChek and lives in town with his two teenage daughters, one a student at Toms River High School South and the other at Ocean County College. “Life is great.”
Topping the volunteer list, Toms River realtor Kim Popek chairs the Just Believe board and serves as the organization’s addiction servicing team leader. Popek said fear of the coronavirus may be contributing to an increase in drug treatment referrals the group is making from among the local homeless population.
Popek said during last winter’s Code Blue period, from November 2019 through mid-March 2020, Just Believe made a total of 29 referrals to treatment programs. During a three-month period from June 1 to August 31, when she began tallying warm weather referrals because she had noticed an uptick, Popek said the number was 49.
“I think some people wanted to be off the street, and it pushed people,” into treatment, Popek said.
This fall the organization opened a thrift shop, the Just Believe Inc. Boutique, in the Aldi shopping plaza on Route 37 in Toms River. The boutique provides clothing to people without a big wardrobe budget, as well as jobs for two people.
One of them is Theresa Walsh, a former Just Believe guest who this year moved into an apartment in a Berkeley Township Housing Authority complex in the township’s Bayville section, after she had been living in her car for two years.
Like Hulse, Walsh had been in a bad car accident, which left her unable to raise her right arm and ended her nascent retail career. The accident was years ago, and Walsh said her descent into homelessness was gradual, after she lived with her mom and dad in Toms River, bouncing from one odd job to another After her parents passed away, she subsisted on Social Security disability payments, lost money on a co-op, and eventually ended up living on four wheels and sleeping — or trying to sleep — in a reclined bucket seat.
“That became my bed, yes,” Walsh said in a phone interview, adding that police left her alone.
Asked whether she ever had sweet dreams of better times, or nightmares reflecting the life she was living, she said didn’t dream at all.
“You never really sleep,” she explained, “because you’re always aware of your surroundings and if there’s any noise. It’s not a good life.”
“If somebody said this could happen to me, wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “But it did.”
“Once, when I was looking for a place to park, I saw a woman with three young children, five, three and one, living in their van,” she said. “And it shouldn’t be happening but it does, every single day. And, I’m afraid, with this virus there will be more every day.”
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Steve Strunsky may be reached at [email protected].