Cold dangerous for the homeless

Posted: February 2, 2011 in homelessness
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Tonight is going to be cold…very, very, cold.

Forecasters are predicting wind chills down to -30 degrees.

At those temperatures, exposed skin can begin getting frostbitten within about 30 minutes, according to the National Weather Service.

Although I made sure to wrap myself in several layers of clothes underneath my hooded parka and heavy overcoat, I shivered as I trudged through the snow down my driveway to collect the empty garbage can that was left in the street.

As I brushed off the snow from my pants onto the rug in my entryway and removed my wet shoes I began to wonder what would happen to the homeless tonight? How could anyone survive cold like this? How many homeless will die tonight?

Fortunately in Omaha there are many organizations who try their best to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Mike Saklar, executive director of the Siena-Francis House, said
“We’ve had a frostbite case almost every day for the past week,” he said. “I’m hopeful that everybody will be safe, that they seek shelter and nobody gets stuck outside.”

He spoke to local reporters of a woman in her mid-30s who arrived at the shelter without a coat and wearing only one shoe.

“She was so frozen she couldn’t talk, just shivered terribly,” Saklar said. The woman had black spots on her feet and legs, a sign of severe frostbite.

Saklar said she was taken to the hospital, where she was bandaged, and then returned to the shelter before being transferred to Catholic Charities for additional care.

Last Friday brought a man with fingers so severely frostbitten that they couldn’t be saved, Saklar said.

People who would like to assist local shelters can donate coats, gloves, scarves and other winter gear. The Siena-Francis House, at 1702 Nicholas St., can also use paper products, such as toilet paper, he said.

Saklar said the shelter has been running over capacity. It has 340 beds but took in 450 people Tuesday.

“Our doors are open 24 hours a day, we don’t turn people away,” Saklar said. “This kind of weather is so dangerous.”

As the temperature continues to drop and the wind picks up many organizations that specialize in helping others are gearing up as well.

Thousands of people in the metro area are receiving help and there never seems to be enough volunteers or materials.

But they’ve become experts at stretching every dollar.

The Open Door Mission is looking at serving around 2,000 meals and Chef Claudzell Meeks at the Mission has to stretch every item.

Over in the clothing store, workers gear up for an onslaught of people in need of warm clothing.

“Everyday somebody walks in off the street needing a coat, gloves, hat, scarves, mittens those type of things,” Cris Morris said. “And today in the blizzard conditions, desperate need for those kind of things.”

Beside clothing, space heathers and blankets will be in demand.

At the Sienna-Francis House, John Kelly is preparing for the evening’s overflow crowd of people needing a place to sleep.

“The programmers that are working on the desk; they take care of making the setups, the blankets the sheets, the pillow cases for the guys that come in at night when they check in,” he said.

Chairs and even the floor will be used but around 450 people will have a warm place to sleep.

“In the time that I’ve been here we have yet to turn anybody away,” Chris Eynon said. “We’ll find a spot. Every nook and cranny in this place gets a person in it.”

Staff members regularly walk the grounds at the Sienna-Francis House every hour to make sure no one is stuck outside. But they will extend that perimeter at night when its brutally cold and they may just save someone’s life.

Eynon said during his three years at the Sienna-Francis House, at least two people who could have frozen to death have been found near the shelter.

So tonight as we sit inside our warm houses, watching our favorite program on our big screen plasma TV, let’s try to remember those in our community who are the most vulnerable on these bitterly cold nights.

We may not be able to save everyone by ourselves but by donating our time and resources to local shelters and other organizations who help the homeless we can do are part to change someone’s life.

We can’t change the world, but everyone has a world contained within them. And when you change one person’s life, you’ve changed the world for that one person.

We won’t see a large change in the homeless in a community until we change the community’s opinion about homelessness.

For more information about local shelters click the links below.

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