Local/State

Groups take steps to protect homeless from bitter cold

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The cold blast that's hitting our area hits the homeless especially hard.

Wednesday, a special group of people spent the day making sure everyone is safe during the cold spell.

People have been flooding area shelters in anticipation of the cold weather, including the Raleigh Rescue Mission, which is having its second white flag day this week. Space is quickly running out.

"When you've got kids or you've got a newborn baby, you don't know where you're going to get your meal at or have a hot bath," said homeless mother Vanessa Pair. "I feel bad for the people who don't have nowhere to go."

Pair knows what it's like to be out on the streets in the cold, but she doesn't have to worry Wednesday night thanks to the Raleigh Rescue Mission.

The shelter's white flag status means its opening its doors to anyone who needs to get in out of the cold. Volunteers are handing out coats, gloves, and hats. They have given away more than 700 items already this winter.

Space is quickly filling up. Mats are sprawled out wherever there is room.

"Really day in and day out, we're pretty much at capacity, particularly in our women and children's overnight emergency services," said Raleigh Rescue Mission Exec. Dir. Lynn Daniell. "When we get into the white flag situation, severe cold like we've got now, we add more mats and help as many people as we can, but we're limited because of our facility."

On any given night, more than 1,000 homeless people roam the streets of Wake County, but many never make it to a shelter.

That's where Alice McGee and her husband, Roger, come in. They take phone calls from those who need help and scour hundreds of the area's homeless camps.

"Even if no one's in their camps, we leave cold weather gear, this or that or food or whatever there might be," said McGee, the director of Church in the Woods. "Hand warmers are a hot item, and blankets go out as fast as we can put them out."

Church in the Woods relies solely on volunteers and donations like sleeping bags -- the kind of tools that can help save a life in below freezing temperatures.

"The last thing we want is for someone to freeze on the streets," said Daniell. "It would just be a travesty for everybody."

Unfortunately, that is the case sometimes.

McGee said more than 30 people in Wake County died last year due to weather related conditions.

The Raleigh Rescue Mission is trying to keep people warm. They need coats sizes 2-XL and larger and insulated gloves.

Meanwhile, some people are finding warmth where they can in other shelters, but some just don't make it.

"Typically, what we'll run into is folks trying to keep warm," said Raleigh Fire Capt. Jeff Harrison.

Harrison said his crew is ready to respond to out of control fires caused by people just trying to survive in the dangerously low temperatures.

"You can imagine what it would be like to stay outside this time of night and that's why they're starting fires under overpasses and trying to get into places where they have shelter," said Harrison.

It's not just those who are homeless. Harrison said people without heat find creative but dangerous ways to keep warm.

"We've had folks use barbeque grills to keep warm," said Harrison. "People will turn the ovens on and open the door."

Those scenarios usually ending in tragedy with carbon monoxide poisoning, or fires.

However, it's the reality of what can happen to those who feel the need to weigh their options between safety and survival from the elements.

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