Thursday, January 07, 2010

USA Today: Cold snap "horrifying" for the homeless

Wendy Koch writes for USA Today.

Homeless shelters are swamped as an extended cold snap in the eastern half of the country raises alarms about people living on the streets or in unheated buildings.

The problem is acute in New Orleans, where thousands displaced since Hurricane Katrina live in abandoned houses.

"It's a pretty horrifying situation," says Martha Kegel of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a network of agencies helping the homeless. She says a team is looking for people who need shelter, but many are hidden. "There's no way to get to all of them," she says.

Overnight temperatures will fall into the mid-20s later this week, The Weather Channel forecasts.

"I have a sickening feeling we're going to lose people to exposure," Kegel says.

Other cities have already seen that.

In Nashville, where the temperature fell to 12 degrees Monday night, four people died outside. The Tennessean reported that one was an 81-year-old man with Alzheimer's who wandered outside in his bathrobe.

"We're trying to prevent hypothermia," especially among people who drink alcohol and might not notice the cold, says Don Worrell, president of the Nashville Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter that has 747 beds and is now over capacity. When the temperature drops below 36 degrees, his "cold patrol" goes out to find the homeless and bring them in.

Even in what is normally sunny Florida, homeless shelters are gearing up as temperatures dip below 40 degrees.

"We're putting people on mats," says Robby Cisrow of Broward Outreach Center in Hollywood, Fla., a homeless shelter that normally houses 15 to 20 people but has averaged 40 this week. It's prepared to take 70.

The deep freeze in much of the South, unaccustomed to such cold, will ease slightly but plunge again by week's end, The Weather Channel says.

People in most cities can phone 211 for help if they lack shelter or their heat has been cut off for unpaid bills.

Birmingham, Ala., opened a temporary "warming center" Tuesday in the Boutwell Municipal Auditorium for anyone needing shelter. It will have cots, blankets and warm drinks and will stay open from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. through Sunday.

In Atlanta, the Gateway Center shelter downtown has more than 100 women and children sleeping on mats in an overflow area.

Protip Biswas of the United Way Regional Commission on Homelessness says outreach workers will push harder to get the homeless indoors if temperatures dip into the teens.

Still, he wonders, "Are we doing enough?"

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