Eileen Leighly and her daughter, Chrissy Neubert, were trying to keep warm, huddled under blankets in their home – a tent set atop wooden pallets, with a tarp overhead draped on trees.
The kerosene heater had run out of fuel, leaving the mother and daughter with no protection against the below-freezing temperatures Monday night. And then things got worse: Falling ice caused the tarp to collapse.
A blast of winter weather this week in the Triangle canceled school and made driving treacherous in some spots. But no one likely feels the effects of frigid, icy weather as much as homeless people.
The White Flag program has been in place, meaning local shelters welcome more people than they have beds for, to get homeless people out of the dangerous cold. Some set up mats or turn sofas into makeshift beds.
But not everyone finds a warm place to stay at night. Leighly, 55, said she hasn’t slept inside in almost a month. She’s been homeless about four years, after she says the owner of a home she was renting in eastern Wake County foreclosed on the house.
Neubert, 32, said she has been staying outside with her mother for about a week after her living situation in Johnston County became unstable.
On Tuesday afternoon, Leighly and Neubert went to the home of Alice and Roger McGee to dry their blankets and drink hot coffee.
Alice McGee, 72, is the pastor and director of Church in the Woods, which ministers to and provides outreach to homeless people in the area.
“How did your feet and fingers do?” McGee asked Leighly after hearing about the tarp collapse.
“I can’t feel my feet,” Leighly replied.
Leighly said she and her daughter considered going to a shelter Monday night, but their cellphone had died and they would have had to rely on buses to get there. Also, Neubert doesn’t like to be around crowds of people she doesn’t know.
They were considering a shelter for Tuesday night, when temperatures were expected to dip to about 20 degrees.
By official count, Wake County has about 1,200 homeless people, said Dr. Peter Morris, executive director of Urban Ministries of Wake County, a nonprofit that addresses hunger, homelessness and health care for the uninsured. Morris says the figure is probably closer to 2,000.
About 11 shelters and housing programs in Wake provide roughly 950 beds, he said.
The Healing Place of Wake County has room for 180 at its men’s shelter and 99 and its women’s shelter, said Dennis Parnell, president and chief executive.
Monday night, Parnell said, The Healing Place put out an extra 20 or 25 mats at the men’s shelter and five or 10 at the women’s shelter to accommodate everyone.
“We’re full every single night now,” he said. The group offers services for people struggling with substance abuse, but it welcomes anyone to stay.
The South Wilmington Street Center, a shelter for men in downtown Raleigh, hosted 278 on Monday night, said shelter manager Frank Lawrence. The facility has 234 beds.
Even when the White Flag program isn’t in effect, the center aims to accommodate as many people as possible, Lawrence said.
“Our goal is to prevent the loss of life ... or injuries as a result of inclement weather,” he said.
Police will help
The shelter at Urban Ministries of Durham was completely full Monday night, and shelter manager Scott Bishop was expecting it to be full again Tuesday night.
The group has 79 beds for men, 30 for women and nine family rooms. There are 19 extra mats and two cots, Bishop said.
Other programs are also in place to help. The American Red Cross opened two temporary shelters at Wake County churches this week – at Garner United Methodist and Benson Memorial United Methodist in Raleigh.
The Red Cross opened the shelters partly in case of power outages, said Barry Porter, regional executive. The Triangle didn’t see many outages during the storm. Only one person stayed at the Garner shelter Monday night, Porter said, and no one stayed at the Raleigh shelter.
About 13 people stayed at the Helping Hand Mission in Raleigh on Monday, said director Sylvia Wiggins. On Tuesday morning, the group served soup and had given out nearly 50 space heaters by 10:45 a.m., she said.
Volunteers with Church in the Woods check on homeless people in extreme weather, McGee said. She encourages people she talks with to call 911 if they have a phone and can’t get to a shelter.
Police will help anyone who is stuck out in the cold, said Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue. They will consider options such as shelters or help people notify friends and family for assistance, he said.
“A Raleigh officer, or any officer, is not ever going to leave someone in harm’s way or in a vulnerable situation,” Sughrue said.
Hoping for the future
Leighly and Neubert both have cellphones. They charge them at McGee’s house or at a McDonald’s or Wendy’s.
But Leighly said she’d be hesitant to call the police, even if she can’t feel her feet.
“It’s embarrassing,” she said.
McGee added: “A lot of people don’t realize it does take courage to ask for help.”
Leighly is hoping to find a place to live soon. She receives $725 a month in disability payments, she said, but it’s tough to scrape enough money together for a deposit and the first month’s rent.
She has worked restaurant jobs over the years, and she and her daughter have cleaned houses together.
Leighly said she’s not sure what it would be like to have a real roof over her head, after all this time.
“It would probably feel weird,” she said.