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The bite of winter spurs activity at New York homeless shelters

It's warm inside the First Moravian Coffee Pot Center, away from the chilling drizzle outside. The room is full of adults sitting at tables sipping hot drinks and talking with others. At first glance, it could be a senior citizen's center. There are few young people.

But the center, located in mid-Manhattan, serves the chronically homeless and mentally ill. And as winter sets in here in the Northeast, agencies like this one are trying to make sure that their clients are warmly and cleanly dressed.

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Food, clothing, and shelter are the priorities at this 15-year-old agency, says program director Jennifer Barrows. The 24-hour drop-in center serves three meals a day, has 150 beds available at night, and offers showers and free clothing for its clients.

The city houses more than 19,000 people every night, while churches shelter about 1,000 more. Some groups estimate there are over 35,000 homeless people in New York City.

Upstairs at the Coffee Pot Center are the showers (there are four, but three don't work right now) and a room with donated clothing for the homeless. Two racks of coats and clothes, several barrels of shirts and trousers, and shelves with shoes on them attest to the abundance of clothes the center has right now. But the situation varies, depending on donations.

''We grind to a halt when we don't have clothes,'' says Ms. Barrows.

There are some 25 to 30 private shelters, says a spokesman for the Coalition for the Homeless. They rely mostly on donations for clothing. Because of the condition of people who come in off the street, these shelters often go through a lot of clothes.

''Forty percent of our clients come in with lice infestations,'' Barrows says. After a shower and delousing, they will need new clothes. Others simply need to replace worn-out clothes.

A primary need is underwear and socks for both men and women, according to several agencies. There is a lack of clothing in larger sizes, and, as the cold weather arrives, for scarves, gloves, and hats, says a worker at the Dwelling Place, a women's shelter near Times Square.

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Sturdy shoes in larger sizes are always welcomed by shelters.

''Sneakers are wonderful,'' Barrows says. We throw away a lot of shoes - narrow, high heels. We probably keep 1 pair in 5 (that are donated).''

Indeed, some agencies say that while they are grateful for all donations, they have to throw away some clothes that just are not suitable for their clients. They request clothes that are clean, without holes or substantial damage, and without bad stains. ''These folks want to appear as invisible as possible,'' says Barrows, noting that they often don't like to stand out in clothes obviously destined for the garbage. ''They have a lot of pride.''

Corporate donations are hard to get, report some agencies. But recently a New York area glove manufacturer, Aris Isotoner Inc., began distributing 5,000 pairs of gloves at soup kitchens.

The chance to get cleaned up and in fresh clothing means a lot to the homeless, say those who work with them.

''This is very important,'' Barrows says as she gives a tour of the shower room and clothing racks at the Coffee Pot Center. ''It's the closest thing to nurturing most of them get. They love it up here.'' The center also offers razors for men and perfume and makeup for the women.

The city shelters are somewhat different from the private and church-run shelters. Out of a $58.8 million budget for homeless individuals, $2.6 million is earmarked for residence, bedding, clothing, and personal items, says a spokesman at the Human Resources Administration.

Clothing in city-run shelters is given on an ''as needed'' basis, says Sandra Wade, special assistant to the director of adult institutional services for the city. A social worker will talk to a client when he or she comes in, and send a note to a clothing room with a list of the client's needs.

The city's stock of clothing comes from both purchases and donations. Since a lot of clothing is given away, some items are bought in bulk. Special purchases are made for particular needs, says Ms. Wade, although she adds that the women's shelter has been looking for larger-size clothing. A recent source of clothing has been from the police department's seized property unit, which brings in newer clothing.

There is a personal laundry system available, but many of the clients find it ''cumbersome,'' Wade says. They will often wear one set of clothing until they need new clothes.

''But some take great care of their clothing,'' she says. ''They will wash them out in the bathroom and lay them at the end of their bed.''

Needs at the 20 city shelters for individual homeless are the same as at private agencies. Right now socks, gloves, and knit hats go quickly, says Wade.

''An effort is made to keep (the homeless) in basic clothing and warm coats, '' she says.

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