Weathering the storm: Homelessness during the polar vortex

by Rosalie Murphy

It rained overnight on Monday, Jan. 28.

By 8 am Tuesday, the temperature had dropped to 18 degrees, coating roads and sidewalks in ice. At the bus station just south of Downtown Akron, two staffers from HM Life Housing were counting and surveying homeless people.

Summit County was observing the federally mandated annual Homeless Point-in-Time Count in which, on the same day every year, agencies try to talk to every homeless person in the region.

By 8:20 am, the women at the bus station had run out of gloves. By 8:40 am, 14 people had approached the table at the bus station and identified themselves as homeless. Twelve had agreed to be surveyed. A volunteer arrived 15 minutes later with coats, boots and more gloves.

The temperature dropped to 10 degrees before midnight. At sunrise on Wednesday, the air in Akron was one degree, and the wind chill 20 below zero.

Extreme cold can be extremely dangerous for people without shelter. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that about 700 homeless people die from hypothermia in the U.S. every year. A local newspaper in Lorain reported that a 60-year-old woman died of hypothermia in an abandoned house during this cold snap.

In Akron, a city mobilized, and homeless people weathered the storm.

Roger Ferguson, 54, became homeless in fall 2018. He spent about two months sleeping on friends’ couches, then pitched a tent in the lot beside the Homeless Charity property in Middlebury, formerly known as Second Chance Village Village, around New Year’s. Roger says he has two tarps on top of his tent and skids and another tarp and cardboard beneath it. He wears a thick coat and has a pile of blankets.

Roger was in his tent during the mid-January snowstorm and during last week’s Polar Vortex. He slept in his tent in sub-zero temperatures on Tuesday night, although the Homeless Charity had left its ground floor open.

He used a single candle with a glass cover for heat, and “I was worried all night because of that candle,” he says. A friend had left one burning in his van and the van had been destroyed.

On Wednesday afternoon, he said his whole body was in pain. That night, he used a propane heater provided by the Homeless Charity, but still slept in his tent.

Roger may have been in the minority, however. Keith Stahl, Director of Operations and Residential Services for Community Support Services, said he visited 10 different homeless encampments during the PIT Count on Tuesday. “Not one (of those) individuals remained in their tent during the cold,” he says.

Many went to the Peter Maurin Center, an emergency drop-in shelter in Summit Lake. Others sought shelter with friends or family.

Herman Wyatt, 67, spent part of last winter living in a tent at the Homeless Charity. He had a small propane heater. At night, he’d climb into his tent, turn it on for a few minutes while he bundled up, then turn it off after the tent was warm. To avoid going outside at night, Herman says he relieved himself in a bottle in his tent, then emptied it in the morning.

Herman has an apartment now, but spent most of the Polar Vortex watching over the Homeless Charity’s day center, handing out donations of coats and gloves to newcomers.

Wednesday’s temperatures were below zero all day. Food donations rolled in at Mason Park Community Center, which stayed open all night. One man and one woman slept on cots donated by the Red Cross.

Roger said police officers stopped by their tents several times Wednesday night, offering to take occupants to Mason Park and other warming centers, but he declined.

The sun shone brightly on Thursday as temperatures climbed back toward five degrees. Spirits were high at the Homeless Charity, where donations had piled up in one corner. On the table was a large bowl of hot soup. The previous day’s donated pizza had been finished.

At the Salvation Army in West Hill, “really, it’s been kind of light,” said Marian Calvin, Director of Development. They served fewer meals than usual, presumably because people didn’t want to leave their homes or shelters in the cold, she said.

“There weren’t a lot of people out,” said Keith of CSS. “A lot of the individuals have family or friends, and maybe they burned that bridge, but when Mom or Dad says you’re not allowed in the house, but it’s sub-zero and they’re camping, they’ll bend their rules for the night. We see that on a regular basis.”

Also, he said, people who are still homeless often stay with formerly homeless friends.

“People are resourceful,” said Joe Scalise, Director of Housing Services for United Way. “Necessity is the mother of invention, and folks do for themselves… but of course it’s going to be dangerous.”

Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.