Homeless in South 'ran for their lives' as polar vortex bit hard

The polar vortex that froze water in all 50 states raised special concerns in the usually mild South. A quick civic response – extra patrols, warming centers, expanded hours at homeless shelters – helped reduce fatalities among the region's homeless population.

By , Staff writer

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    People eat a meal at Atlanta Mission Shepherd's Inn on Tuesday in Atlanta. Responding to record cold temperatures, many homeless shelters implemented emergency plans, such as not turning anyone away or not making people leave the shelter during the day. Here, even the stairwells were used to handle the overflow.
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Anthony Gray did what almost all of the 6,000 or so homeless people in Atlanta had to do Monday, as temperatures plunged to a record 6 degrees F.: He made a decision to possibly save his own life, or at least his fingers and toes, from the polar vortex.

A person who says he likes his own space, which means often sleeping by himself outdoors, Mr. Gray decided to seek shelter with the multitudes clustering around community hearths amid a dangerous, even deadly, Arctic cold wave that weather experts said had the potential of freezing bare skin with only 15 minutes of exposure.

“All the homeless people ran for their lives, and I did, too!” says Gray, who took sanctuary in county-run Grady Hospital, which cares for the city’s poor. “I’d never seen it so cold in the South.”

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As temperatures finally floated above freezing on Thursday, those who live in a part of the country unaccustomed to minus wind chills reflected on a dangerous few days that plunged Southern cities with vulnerable homeless people from Austin to Atlanta into a historic cold.

To be sure, the chill took its toll: Two people died in the Atlanta area from exposure, part of a cohort of some some 21 people across the US who died for reasons connected in some way to the frigid weather.

Comparatively, however, only a few who perished could be considered chronically homeless, even though those folks are arguably the most cold-vulnerable group of Americans, with as many as 800,000 of them sleeping outside on any given night.

That suggests to some that many Americans showed particular, though perhaps not unexpected, concern for the less fortunate in a cold snap that exposed so many already-vulnerable citizens to weather that was, as Weather Channel meteorologist Kevin Roth told NBC News, “[c]old enough to take your breath away."

State emergency officials said they were on high alert as the dense mass of polar cold air approached last weekend. Yet in the end, not a single Georgia municipality requested help from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), which mostly gave warnings and updates on the “weather event” as it proceeded into the midweek.

To GEMA spokesman Ken Davis, the lack of help requests from local communities meant that largely apolitical community networks – local government, police, churches, and regular citizens – had the situation under control.

“In this case, local capabilities were significant and more than adequate to handle the need,” said Mr. Davis.

It also helped, he added, that the cold brought no moisture, so power remained on for the most part, allowing heaters to hum. And Monday and Tuesday both beat previous records for US natural-gas consumption, highlighting the fact that water was freezing hard in all 50 states.

The threat was daunting across the country. New York City struggled to safeguard its large homeless population as temperatures in Central Park broke a 118-year-old record on Tuesday morning, when the mercury read 4 degrees. Further South, Charlotte, N.C., Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta all shattered low records.

Here in Atlanta and other cities pounded by the polar vortex, the low casualty rate among the chronically homeless had several causes, homeless advocates said.

Police added extra patrols, churches opened “warming centers” and procured blankets, and homeless shelters turned no one away. At the Metro Atlanta Taskforce for the Homeless shelter at the corner of Peachtree and Pine, more than 1,000 people stayed warm in the 700-person-capacity shelter, many sleeping in halls. There are more than 30 homeless shelters in the greater Atlanta area.

Homeless advocates also formed impromptu patrols that checked the city’s bridges and parks, where people are by tradition allowed to secure a few square yards of real estate for sleeping and living purposes. Police added patrols and focused on guiding those who may have been unprepared to move inside.

“We wanted to reach out and bring people in rather than have them fumbling around at the last minute,” says Jack Jackson, a staffer at the Metro Atlanta Taskforce for the Homeless shelter. “Some of them had to be coaxed inside.”

Other organizations, too, “worked feverishly” to try to keep homeless people out of harm’s way, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

“I’m trying to squeeze beds in every single space that I can,” Janeane Schmidt, director of the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Services, told the AJC. “I just can’t bear to see people out there in the cold.”

Even for homeless families and youths able to find shelter, conditions in this week's hard cold were "miserable," says Diane Nilan, a homeless activist and filmmaker with HEAR US Inc., who travels the country in a trailer documenting the lives of homeless children. "Sure, some are able to squeeze into shelters in the areas that might have them, but the squeeze causes even more tension and lack of the basic human needs – food, privacy, rest, etc.," she says in an e-mail.

"On other fronts, resources were pooled to get into cheap motel rooms," she adds. "While that is technically 'shelter,' it's chaos and stress at best. The nongovernment groups certainly helped, providing money for motels or opening church doors, and that was good for the few who were lucky enough to partake in that kindness. But too many had to cope with too little."

The heavy cold posed difficulties even in seasoned wintry spots like Chicago and Boston. But the South is a place where people may occasionally wear knit winter caps, though rarely winter gloves. When things freeze, it’s usually the barely-32-degree weather in which everybody frets about oranges getting frost-bitten and ruined. In the polar vortex, however, a coat and gloves didn’t cut it.

And that was the concern that sparked such widespread action: that some people might be unawares of, or hadn’t adequately prepared for, the cold. That especially applied to the homeless, advocates said.

“A great deal of Southerners aren’t used to this type of weather, so they need a helping hand when it gets dangerously cold like that,” says Mr. Jackson, the homeless shelter staffer.

As for Gray, he says the cold snap only reinforced his decision to start looking for an apartment.

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