While the wintry weather forced some Triangle businesses to close their doors early Friday, emergency homeless shelters across the area opened theirs wide.
Typically, shelters do not permit people to stay past 7 a.m., and they have strict limits in place on the number permitted to stay there. But the South Wilmington Street Center in Raleigh and Durham Rescue Mission in Durham relaxed their rules this week in light of freezing temperatures.
Once beds at the shelters were full, they provided pallets to those people without shelter for the night. At the Durham Rescue Mission, people slept on wooden pews in its chapel and on the floor to gain respite from the cold.
“The ground is cold no matter how many coats you’ve got on,” said Robert Jackson, 19. “I felt safer sleeping in the chapel than I have in months.”
The Durham Rescue Mission’s men’s shelter normally holds 185 people at its 1201 E. Main St. location. But more than 230 men sought cover there on Wednesday and Thursday nights.
At the South Wilmington Street Center on Wednesday night, the shelter was 81 people over its capacity of 234 men, said Frank Lawrence, shelter supervisor. Numbers were similar throughout the rest of the week, he said.
South Wilmington Street Center – the largest emergency shelter for men in Wake County – has a white flag system to alert people that they can stay there when the temperature drops below freezing. As long as the white flag is mounted at the 1420 S. Wilmington St. location, people can come in, Lawrence said.
Frank Donovan, who stayed at the Durham Rescue Mission on Thursday night, said some homeless people would rather stay on the street because they do not want to conform to a shelter’s rules.
“Some people who are drinking and drugging, they don’t want to come in from the cold,” he said.
Ernie Mills, CEO of the Durham Rescue Mission, said men also don’t come in sometimes because they don’t want to admit they need help. To persuade those in the homeless community to seek cover, Mills took fliers, coffee, doughnuts and a printout of the weather forecast and walked around Durham on Thursday.
Freezing rain leads to hypothermia more quickly than snow because it penetrates clothing more quickly, Mills said. And when the wind starts to blow, body temperatures can lower dramatically.
“We grew up the poorest of the poor,” Mills said. “I have a feeling for what they are going through. ... I always had to go out and feed the hogs – rain, snow, whatever. It was bone chilling.”