Deep freeze in eastern US places heavy burden on nation’s homeless

Shelters struggle to keep beds open as extreme cold brings potential for frostbite and even death

For a majority of Americans, the record low temperatures that descended across much of the United States on Tuesday were cause for little more than an annoyingly frigid morning commute. But for the nation's often overlooked homeless population, the weather was more than just bothersome; it was potentially deadly for the 600,000 who find themselves without a place to call their own.

In small towns and large cities alike, homeless-service organizations grappled with unprecedented numbers of men and women seeking warmth and respite from the intense cold. Smaller organizations struggled not to turn people away from overcrowded shelters and churches, where some organizations began to pull out extra cots and blankets to meet the demand.

"We are bursting at the seams," said Janay Boyer, who works at Atlanta Mission, the Southern city's largest service provider for homeless people.

The single-digit temperatures in Atlanta on Tuesday morning were its coldest in nearly two decades. Boyer said the shelter has seen a 40 percent increase in people seeking assistance, forcing the organization to use pallets on the floor and chairs as beds on Monday night.

"Temperatures that are so, so dangerous. That's not a common situation for Atlanta. We are not even allowing people to stand outside while we do intake."

Even in cities that are used to the cold, homeless organizations are finding it difficult to combat that precipitous drop in temperatures. Minneapolis' weather dipped below zero overnight, with wind chills making it feel 25 degrees colder than that.

"The air is really dry. If your skin is exposed for 20 seconds, the beginnings of frostbite happen," said David Jeffries, who directs the single-adult program at St. Stephens Human Services in Minneapolis. "Even for people with resources in the Twin Cities, it's quite challenging. So imagine what it's like for homeless people."

The weather is particularly difficult for smaller towns and cities, which often lack the capacity to house homeless populations, much less in subzero conditions that cause numbers to swell.

"The capacity has never matched the need," said Jerry Jones, director of the national advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless. "Only a third (of homeless people) are sheltered on a given night in the U.S. The drop in temperature is really putting a lot of people in danger."

Homeless people in New York City received respite, of sorts, through a recent announcement from City Hall. On his second day in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio reinstated a Code Blue policy, guaranteeing people shelter if the temperature drops below 32 degrees.

While the homeless have it hardest, experts warn that the cold is dangerous for anyone who is outside for too long.

The arctic air caused officials to close schools and cancel flights across North America on Tuesday.

It was too cold for employees at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, forcing the airport to put a ground stop into effect for air traffic. Meanwhile, JetBlue was one of several carriers to cancel dozens of flights between California, New York and Boston on Monday.

Minnesota canceled school on Tuesday, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for several upstate New York counties.

But conditions are set to improve in the days to come.

Many areas parts of the country can look forward to warmer conditions toward the end of the week: In Minneapolis, for example, it will be about 32 degrees by Friday, forecasters say, and New York City is expected to return to relatively balmier conditions later in the week. 

But even after most people's lives return to normal, the nation's homelessness crisis will remain.

Social workers and homeless advocates say that while the cold brings increased urgency to getting people indoors, the cold itself isn't the problem. The icy conditions just highlight an issue that has long plagued the nation.

After taking a brief dip as the country recovered from the recession, statistics suggest homelessness is once again on the rise.

The mayors of 25 large and medium-size metro areas said last month they expected this year to set another record — this time not for the weather but for the number of people sleeping on the street.

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