Cold snap a real threat to the homeless
With temps 15 degrees below average, clinics go into “survival mode” after a hypothermia death and frostbite cases.
Published: December 12, 2013 09:54AM
Updated: December 12, 2013 01:01AM
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Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune A homeless man named Mike talks about the challenges of trying to stay warm in these colder than average temperatures, Wednesday, December 11, 2013.

Shannon Rangel lived in the “Icebox of the Nation,” and even he is getting out of this cold.

Rangel, who has been homeless for 18 years, took to sleeping under bridges, where he can find cover from the rain and snow. Rangel knows cold — he used to live in Big Piney, Wyo. — but with how frigid it has been here lately, even Rangel has taken up shelter in the Road Home.

Salt Lake City’s homeless advocates are pleading again: Come inside. A death in Memory Grove served as a reminder this week of what can happen during these freezing nights.

A passer-by walking his dog Monday found the body of Reed Karren near the park, a favorite camping locale for transients. An autopsy determined that Karren, 39, had succumbed to hypothermia; it had been 4 degrees earlier that morning. While police say Karren was not homeless, his death goes to show how dangerous these nippy nights can be, even in dense, bustling downtown Salt Lake City.

The Fourth Street Clinic is seeing people come in with frostbite, and spokeswoman Jennifer Hyvonen expects the cases to grow as the days go on, since the condition takes a while to set in. “It’s just starting,” she said.

From Dec. 4 through Tuesday, temperatures in Salt Lake City have been about 15 degrees chillier than average for this time of year, according to the National Weather Service. The deep freeze will not end anytime soon, either. The highs and lows are expected to fluctuate for the next few days, but the highs will never break 34 and lows will remain in the teens.

It’s technically still autumn.

The Road Home sees a spike of about 70 people during cold snaps like these, said executive director Matt Minkevitch. And yet those numbers could swell.

“There are still, if you talk to homeless outreach, in spite of these incredibly bitter temperatures, individuals who stay out,” he said, “which is amazing, really.”

When these cold snaps hit, Volunteers of America’s Utah affiliate shifts gears to what spokeswoman DeAnn Zebelean calls “survival mode.” The nonprofit works with the homeless year round, but these spells make that outreach all the more important, added spokesman Zach Bale.

Bale described how the volunteers will hike up and down the Jordan River and along the foothills looking for homeless camps, each made up of a handful of people. The idea behind the camps is “safety in numbers,” but the freezing temperatures take their toll anyway.

“There’s a youth we have been working with who I believe has lost a toe or two through frostbite,” Bale said. “It’s very real.”

The volunteers pass out essentials and encourage the homeless to come inside. But not all of them will; the adults who resist sometimes have significant issues stemming from poor mental health or substance abuse, while most youths — those under age 25, for them — have been abused by adults and are wary of shelters full of older people, Bale said.

Rangel takes comfort in having a warm place to sleep, but he sees drawbacks to the shelters, too. He feels safer under a bridge where he “can hear a pin drop.”

Others gathered outside the Road Home on Wednesday afternoon shared similar concerns — the “drugs and drama” as a homeless man who did not want to be identified described it. But the homeless are still glad to have a warm place to sleep.

Minkevitch recognizes how it can be hard to get a good night’s sleep when the shelters get so crowded. But they want people to come in and will not turn anyone away.

The Road Home also wants to get clean socks on transients’ feet. There is a huge need for socks of all sizes, preferably new ones but not necessarily so, and they can be dropped off at the shelter’s 210 S. Rio Grande location.

Chris Croswhite, executive director of the Salt Lake Rescue Mission, does not turn away anyone in this cold either. “Anybody who knocks on our door, we have an automatic admittance,” he said. “If they knock on our door in the middle of the night, our night security will let them in.”

On Wednesday, the mission had a homeless man walk in wearing a pair of socks, but no shoes. They warmed him up and found him new footwear, but there is a great need for more, including for women and children, Croswhite said. Anyone interested in donating can call the mission at 801-355-1302 or visit its website, rescuesaltlake.org. Croswhite encouraged businesses and churches to set up shoe drives, which make a tremendous difference.

mmcfall@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mikeypanda