Cold snaps potentially deadly for those without shelter

January 17, 2014 

Joe Smith, 49, has been living on the edge of the woods in Raleigh for the past four months. Despite not having a tent or tarps to protect him from the elements, he remains outdoors.


For those with hearth and home, a wave of cold weather means simmering soup on the stove, bundling up, stoking the fireplace and warming the insides with hot chocolate.

But for the homeless and the poor, it means a potentially serious, even deadly crisis.

The generous Alice McGee, whose Church in the Woods works with Raleigh’s homeless, troops from camp to camp in the cold, urging people to go inside. Some just prefer their own company to what they anticipate will be crowded shelters with strict rules. Others go along.

It appears some really cold nights are ahead, most of them in the next two weeks with low temperatures near or below freezing. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the forecast is for lows of 19 and 16 degrees.

For those living outside – and no one really knows exactly how many people in the Triangle are in those circumstances – it will be impossible to get warm absent a visit to a shelter.

Raleigh police officer Wendy Clark says perhaps six people died during cold snaps last year. Not all such deaths are direct results of cold, but people with medical problems or who are just weak from malnutrition, for example, are more vulnerable to the cold.

It’s inconceivable to most of us that in 2014, with shelters and established institutions such as the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross and Urban Ministries and the Raleigh Rescue Mission and Love Wins Ministries and people like Alice McGee in a community much blessed to have them, people could die out in the cold.

Homelessness can seem chronic and the stubborn or mentally ill can seem beyond help. But the problem can be solved. Phoenix announced in December that it has become the first city in the country to eradicate homelessness among veterans, a group that has especially high rates of health and substance-abuse problems. The goal – part of an Obama administration push to end all homelessness among veterans by 2015 – was accomplished by finding a place for the homeless vets to live without requiring that they be sober or drug free. Once housed, the veterans could work on their other problems.

In the Triangle, Wake, Durham and Orange counties all are connected to fuel-assistance programs that help poor people heat their houses. Warmth for Wake, from county social services and the N.C. Bankers Association, is one of the oldest.

For those who don’t work with homeless people on a regular basis, they can be a mystery and even worrisome. But Hugh Hollowell, who runs his Love Wins Ministries from a Raleigh home, learned long ago the value of all people and the vulnerability of those without shelter.

He recalled one particularly painful memory, of a man named “Cowboy” who had been helped and fed and befriended by him and his staff. Cowboy died outside one night after having a seizure.

There are too many such stories. Let us hope the homeless pilgrims among us can make it through these next weeks without becoming part of any more of them.

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