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As Hurricane Irma looms, Miami's homeless are urged to go into shelters

ABC News(MIAMI) -- For some of Miami's homeless population, hunkering down at a local shelter is welcome protection from the approaching hurricane, even if their stay is only temporary.

"The only reason I'm in this shelter is because I feel safer here," said Terrace Mathews, 46, who said he has been homeless for four years.

As Hurricane Irma -- the most powerful Atlantic storm in a decade -- approaches Florida, ABC News joined Miami Police Officer James Bernat, a homeless coordinator for the department, on the street Friday as officers worked to bring homeless individuals to shelters.

Millions of Floridians are under evacuation orders, and 260 shelters are open across the state where the hurricane is expected to hit Sunday morning.

"The Miami Police Department is out here today to see how many folks we can get off the street due to Hurricane Irma. These folks don't have anywhere to go, and we're very worried about their safety," Bernat told ABC News. "Anyone left on the street might perish or have great bodily harm, and we need to take care of the most needy in the community."

For those who won't go willingly, Bernat told ABC News that police are invoking a law that allows authorities to institutionalize people who present a danger to themselves or others for up to 72 hours.

Bernat said some homeless people have been resistant to going to shelters.

"But as they learn more and more about the catastrophic hurricane that's coming our way, more and more folks are seeking shelter," he said. "And we're here to help and get as many people into shelters as possible."

A Salvation Army in Miami, which already had residents, was opened to the city's homeless for Irma and quickly reached capacity Friday as homeless individuals were brought in for shelter, said Fernando Colon, the facility's director of social services.

"We can't take them all, especially families," Colon told ABC News. He said they are accommodating "single females, single males" which are "easier to house at this time."

Mathews, who has been homeless for four years and is staying at the Salvation Army for the duration of the storm, told ABC News, "This is temporary, so after this, I go back in the street."

"I feel safer in the shelter for the simple fact that I think it's going be a monster," he said.

Mathews recalled living through Hurricane Andrew, which devastated the Miami area in 1992, with the wind howling so loud during that storm that "it sounded like a spirit."

"I have a feeling this one is going to be worse than Andrew," he said. "It's not just going to be rain. It's not just going to be wind. I believe this is going to be a detrimental storm."

Colon said the Salvation Army offers three meals a day, which, for some now sheltering there, may be the first meal in a few days.

The shelter usually houses a few people in each room, but now has a room with 36 cots set up for the storm. "We've had some Irma guests or clients come in and all they wanted to do was sleep to rest. ... That's OK," Colon said, noting that this might be their first chance in a while to sleep on a mattress.

Colon added that many of the homeless individuals coming in to escape the storm have needs beyond shelter, such as medical and mental health care and social services.

"In a period of two or three days, you can't accommodate all those needs, but at least you can give them a place to sleep with some food in their stomachs ... and some conversation with some of our staff and counselors that are here," he said.

One volunteer who could relate is Michael Duran, who said he was homeless for two months after losing his job and apartment. Now he's living at the Salvation Army and volunteering there.

"I never expected the shelter to be the way it is. The staff is wonderful. They help you with job placement, three meals a day, clean linen. The atmosphere is real good," he told ABC News. "I never knew there was going to be so much help as there is. I tell people not to be shy; if they need help, come to the Salvation Army or to any other shelter there is in Miami."

Mathews, whose stay at the Salvation Army may be brief, said he's hoping to look for help after the storm passes. "Even when this is over -- because this is temporary housing -- I want to reach out," he said. "OK, this is emergency shelter, but I still need help."

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