As US braces for polar vortex, cities prepare to help most vulnerable

As cold air moves in next week, temperatures are expected to drop. Local government and nonprofit groups are working to set up temporary shelters and get homeless residents inside.

Mark Lennihan/AP
A homeless woman sleeps with her belongings in front of a Capital One bank in New York on Wednesday.

In ways small and big, cities across the United States are preparing to look after vulnerable residents during the expected polar vortex.

A series of snowstorms across parts of the northern states is expected to be followed by a blast of air that is “substantially colder” than the past week, according to Paul Pastelok, the lead long-range meteorologist for AccuWeather. By mid-December, the northern and central Plains, as well as the Midwest, may be facing temperatures between 5 and 20 degrees F. colder than this week, on average. In some areas, temperatures may drop below 0 degrees.

In response, local government and nonprofit groups in numerous states are reaching out to residents who normally live outdoors and encouraging them to settle in at local shelters, away from the potentially deadly temperatures. Emergency shelters, hot soup, and warm coats are all part of the effort.

In St. Louis, Mo., reports of cold temperatures spurred the Winter Operations program into action, according to the Associated Press. Several city government departments cooperate with local nonprofits to reach the homeless, wherever they are, and provide transport to shelters, where additional beds are made available as part of the program. Volunteers are also involved in these efforts.

City Union Mission’s Paul McMillian in Kansas City knows the chilly temperatures mean more of Kansas City’s homeless residents may need somewhere to spend the night. There will probably be 250 or more men at the shelter as the cold arrives, he told Kansas City’s KMBC 9.

Mr. McMillian, who has been passing out coats, hats, and water from the back of an SUV for the past 5 years, will continue these outreach efforts during the bitter cold, according to KMBC 9.

Temperatures below freezing have been deadly in the past, shelter directors in North Carolina’s Research Triangle told ABC 11 – and everyone is working to prevent fatalities like those that happened last year. 

Shelters are flying a white flag, signaling that people who normally sleep outside should make their way indoors, where there will be extra mats and cots made available. The Durham Rescue Mission has three teams of men out looking for homeless people who live in the woods, bringing them hot coffee, pastries, and the offer of transport to the Mission. Hot soup is also available around the clock.

The Salvation Army, which put up a white flag in Raleigh, is handing out toiletry items to those who come in, and taking donations of everything from blankets and towels to laundry detergent and diapers.

And in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., dozens of organizations continue to work to get a winter shelter up and running by January, The News-Gazette reports. In the interim, local drop-in center C-U at Home has extended its hours to keep people out of the cold longer, while Champaign-Urbana Canteen Run is operating an overnight shelter at the Salvation Army Church. The county’s Emergency Management Agency has also designated several public places as warming centers for people who need to get inside, according to The News-Gazette.

The efforts have already made a difference for families like Shauna Ross’s.

“Right now, I just have nowhere else to go,” Ms. Ross, who has two girls and was looking for shelter for the first time, told ABC 11 in Raleigh, NC.

Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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