LAKEWOOD / TOMS RIVER - When temperatures plummet, as they're expected to again tonight, Ocean County homeless individuals no longer have no choice but to tough it out against the elements.

Toms River warming center (Paul Hulse)

The Lakewood Community Center and the First Assembly of God Church in Toms River are the county's first two designated warming centers, and both are prepared to offer relief tonight.

Dr. Tracy Maksel, Director of Ocean County's Department of Human Services, activates Code Blue tonight through Thursday night. According to Paul Hulse of Haven-Beat The Street in Ocean and Atlantic Counties, temperatures trigger the designation.

"It's 32 degrees, or below, with precipitation, or 25 degrees or below with no precipitation," Hulse said.  Participation involves communities with 10 or more documented homeless individuals.

Notice for each instance is posted on the County's web and Facebook pages, and distributed through the Constant Contact system, Dr. Maksel said. Outreach specialists in Human Services, law enforcement and emergency management create the connection to people in need.

Last week's cold snap was the shakedown cruise for the County's initial warming center in Lakewood. "We saw 25 to 30 people a night, for the four nights that we were open," he added, noting that people ventured in from Jackson and other communities outside the two-town nucleus for warmth, rest and basic nourishment.

The operations have the approval and cooperation of officials overseeing operations for the county and in both municipalities.

Code Blue warming center, Toms River (Paul Hulse)

Hulse estimates that the Lakewood center has space for about two dozen people, and the Toms River site can host 12. Staffers engage the individuals in dialogue to determine their circumstances. Hulse noted that homeless doesn't necessarily mean jobless, or penniless. Some arrivals are just need a boost through hard times.

"Some have full-time jobs, and just can't find living space that's compatible with their wages," Hulse said.

Cooperation and collaboration, in Hulse's view, will determine the level of success that the warming centers achieve. "Just organizing it, and understanding how it works, for all of us, is the key piece."

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