With temperatures dropping into the upper teens in the Triangle on Monday morning, area homeless shelters and charities are finding that many of the people they help with food, shelter and clothing also need help just keeping warm.
When temperatures dip in the winter, more homeless people seek shelter and some who do have homes struggle to keep the heat on, left to scrounge for blankets or huddle around electric space heaters. This season’s winter weather has come early, with overnight lows dipping below freezing a half-dozen times already.
The cold will last through the week, with temperatures about 20 degrees colder than normal most days – highs in the 40s and lows in the 20s. A storm that’s expected to dump heavy rain on the Triangle on Tuesday could bring freezing rain to areas north and west; Orange County and Person County schools will open two hours late Tuesday because of the threat of bad weather.
When temperatures drop below freezing, homeless shelters get out extra beds and raise white flags to indicate they’ve got room for additional people.
“We are all pretty much at capacity, but we can pull out just a few additional beds, which is very difficult to do on a normal basis,” said Lynn Daniell, executive director of the Raleigh Rescue Mission.
The mission normally has beds for 17 people but can pull out another five in white flag conditions. The onset of winter always brings more people than the shelter can manage. The mission prioritizes women with children first, then elderly women, then newcomers. After that, Daniell said, it works like a “lottery.”
“If you have 17 beds or 22 beds, and you have 35 people out there waiting to come in, what do you do?” he said.
Frank Lawrence, supervisor of the South Wilmington Street Center in Raleigh, said 33 extra people came to the shelter Sunday night “that normally wouldn’t be in the building.” The shelter normally holds 234 men but can add more in white flag conditions.
“We convert our cafeteria area into a dorm, and we usually are able to accommodate an additional 60 to 70 people safely,” Lawrence said. “If we need more space, we can use our resource room, and that can hold another 30 or 40.”
The cold weather has created a waiting list about 800 people long at the Salvation Army of Wake County, said spokeswoman Lizzy Adams. Normally, the group can accommodate 92 people. But white flag weather “definitely changes the game,” she said.
“It might mean putting out cots in the dining hall, or wherever we have space,” Adams said. “We have to put that many more staff on duty. We have to use that much more food.”
Many people who have homes also need help coping with the cold. Sylvia Wiggins, executive director of Helping Hand Mission in Raleigh, said the weather has made conditions for those who cannot afford to pay their heating bills “drastic.”
“With all this early cold, people are really suffering,” Wiggins said. “When it’s 20 degrees, 25 degrees, and you don’t have heat in your house, it’s terrible.”
The mission distributes donated winter clothing, space heaters and other items to needy families. Last winter, workers gave out more than 600 space heaters. Already this season, they have distributed about 270, Wiggins said.
Warmth for Wake, a seasonal program run by Wake County Human Services and the N.C. Bankers Association, will be delivering wood, space heaters and financial assistance for the 36th year this winter. Households that have people older than 60 or younger than 12 receive priority for assistance.
So far this winter, 67 households are on the list for firewood, a service that runs from October to March, according to Denise Kissel, spokeswoman for Wake County Human Services. Normally, she said, the program provides firewood to about 100 families.
“We try to visit them once a month to keep them supplied,” she said.
Firewood comes from a variety of sources, including tree companies, public parks and private homeowners. Each Saturday, volunteers chop and deliver the wood to the needy.
Heater deliveries and financial assistance will begin in December.
Brandon Wright, spokesman for the bankers association, said the last two mild winters helped build resources for Warmth for Wake, but this winter could significantly deplete them.
“All it takes is one cold winter to wipe out a year’s worth of work for financial assistance,” Wright said.