Freezing temperatures pose deadly threat to Delaware's homeless
Early Friday afternoon, Eric Smith walked in the side door at Immanuel Shelter near Rehoboth Beach, his cheeks pink from the brutally cold and windy January day.
“Where have you been?” site manager Toni Short asked.
“In my tent,” the 38-year-old homeless man responded.
Short begged him not to go back out as Smith caught his breath and settled into the small, toasty shelter.
A little while later, as he clasped his hands around a hot cup of coffee, Smith said he would be gone after dinner. He came to the shelter only to charge his phone, take a shower and shave, he said. Filling up on homemade chili for lunch and turkey with baked potatoes and vegetables for dinner was a bonus.
“I have to go back,” he explained. “There’s a stubborn 70-year-old man back there who won’t move. I’ll eat, shower and shave and bring dinner back to him.”
Smith and his friend are among dozens of homeless people in Delaware facing potentially deadly conditions during one of the state’s longest cold snaps since the late 1970s.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 1,070 people were homeless in Delaware in 2016, a 12.3 percent increase from the previous year. Less than 5 percent of those considered homeless – about 51 people – were completely without shelter that year, the agency found.
While Smith is welcome to spend the night at Immanuel Shelter, the Seaford native said he prefers his own tent hidden in the woods.
When a massive winter storm intensified along the East Coast this past week, Smith made sure to stock up on batteries, water and instant meals – oatmeal, rice and anything else that can be cooked in three minutes or less.
He said a layer of hay lining the bottom of his tent keeps his makeshift shelter insulated, while a propane heater and the body warmth trapped inside two sleeping bags is enough for him. He keeps bottled water cuddled beside him so it doesn’t freeze as temperatures dip into the teens.
“And if the snow stacks up against the sides, it blocks the wind,” he said. “But I am thankful for places like this. I’m thankful for the help we do have. This is the best place to be homeless.”
New Jersey native Kiona Cypress isn’t as committed to living in a tent. She came to Immanuel Shelter with her boyfriend last month, shortly after she learned she was pregnant.
“Before this, me and my boyfriend were staying in a tent, so we’re glad that the shelter opened up,” the 25-year-old said. “He would hold me at night, and we would sleep with the warmers, like from Walmart. And then when I was getting morning sickness, I started being concerned for the baby. Maybe I can survive it for myself, but with a baby inside, maybe he or she couldn’t survive it.”
Cypress, who said she’s been on the Delaware Housing Authority’s waiting list for three years, said she wouldn’t know what to do without Immanuel Shelter, one of more than a dozen Code Purple shelters statewide that offers respite from subzero wind chills.
In those conditions – and with snow nearly a foot deep in some parts of the state – people who aren’t as fit as Smith, or equipped with his level of survival skills, face life-threatening conditions.
“I urge everyone to come in and be in a safe place, a warm place, have something to eat and have a place to sleep,” Short said. “There’s a lot of people still out there, and I’m concerned for them. We don’t know if they’re sick. We don’t know what they need. We don’t know their location. We don’t know anything.”
A deadly situation
Part of what makes this cold snap so dangerous is that Delaware traditionally doesn’t see extended periods of cold like this, said Dr. Sandra Gibney, an emergency room doctor at Saint Francis Healthcare in Wilmington.
Giving the homeless a blanket and a tent, as some nonprofits have done, can help – but not when temperatures drop into the teens and stay there.
“It’s like giving them a death sentence,” Gibney said. “They’re encouraging a behavior that is a no-win situation. The only appropriate answer is to get inside. It’s just not survivable.”
Inside Saint Francis, the waiting room can quickly turn into a warming center. When a Code Purple goes into effect, the hospital won’t turn anyone away – no matter what their state of mind or medical condition. Many shelters won’t admit those with a substance use disorder who arrive under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Unfortunately, those struggling with alcohol or drugs are often those who need shelter the most. Connections to family have long been broken, and without a place to go, cars, underpasses and makeshift cardboard tents become home.
Yet in sub-freezing temperatures, that’s simply not enough.
The worst conditions occur when people get wet by snow, sleet or rain, Gibney said. “Wet cold” penetrates the skin quicker than those with dry layers, meaning that wet layers need to come off," the doctor said.
Already this season, she has seen men and women with fingers, toes and limbs black with frostbite. One man, who already had two toes amputated from living in the cold, will likely need to have more removed. If too much times passes after frostbite sets in, it’s impossible to revive the dead, blackened tissue with warm water whirlpools and other methods, Gibney said.
It’s all part of the body’s process to save itself.
First, blood flow stops to nonessential parts of the body like fingers and toes, and muscles begin to shiver to keep life – and some heat – in them, Gibney said.
Eventually, the shivering stops – a bad sign for those out in freezing temperatures – and a sure sign the situation is about to go downhill quickly, according to the doctor. Soon blood flow to other parts of the body slows, ending with the heart. Freezing to death really means going into a cardiac standstill, which sometimes can be reversed when addressed early into the frigid ordeal, Gibney said.
“It’s where we get the saying, ‘You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead,’” she said, explaining that the practice of cooling the heart and rewarming it is used in open-heart surgeries. The ER doctor has used the practice in her previous work to save the lives of frozen people in Philadelphia, but not yet in Wilmington.
Even brief stints in the warmth can make a huge difference for those living outside this time of year, Gibney said. She tells those suffering with addiction — who refuse to stay in shelters — to get out of the cold at least once an hour. Saint Francis uses the same policy for maintenance staff who work outside the hospital putting down salt and shoveling snow.
“We haven't had this weather in a very long time,” Gibney said. “The key is limiting your exposure — and making sure you’re rewarming.”
According to the state Division of Forensic Science, cold weather-related deaths account for a very small portion of deaths in Delaware. In the past three years, a total of 12 people died as a result of cold weather, according to the state agency.
Just last year, the state recorded four deaths, two of which occurred in December. So far this year, Delaware has lost one person to the cold.
Sharon Stribling was found dead inside a parked Ford Explorer she called home at the beginning of the recent cold stretch, just as emergency homeless shelters began opening statewide because of the dipping temperatures.
A strain on shelters
Nearly two weeks of freezing weather has filled shelters and churches that open their doors to those in need. While the number of people seeking help has not significantly increased, the length of the stay has.
“The shelter is 48 hours of constant lived-in right now,” Immanuel Shelter board President Janet Idema said. “It’s a little bit overwhelming in terms of that. It’s been more difficult.”
In recent days, shelter site manager Stephen Griffin said about two dozen people have sought refuge each night.
“That’s about the number we’d normally have, which is a little concerning,” Griffin said, concerned that more people aren't coming in.
Normally, Griffin said, the shelter allows people to check in from 4-4:45 p.m., and they can stay until 8 a.m.
“But because it’s been so snowy and so cold and conditions have been just uninhabitable out there, we’ve been leaving the shelter open until conditions improve,” he said.
It’s also been a hectic few days at Georgetown Presbyterian Church on North Bedford Street, which opens its fellowship hall to those in need for overnight stays.
Pastor Mike Williams said this has been one of the busiest winters since the church began offering its community space for shelter 11 years ago.
“It’s pretty wild,” he said. “We don’t get snows like this all the time. We don’t get cold snaps like this all the time.”
Williams said 27 people sought help as the recent snowstorm hit Delmarva. Of those, 19 spent the night. And 12 of that group had full-time jobs.
“They have regular jobs but cannot afford housing,” he said.
Williams said people who spend the night usually have to be out by 8 a.m. because the fellowship hall is used by many different organizations. That was the case on Friday, he said, so he partnered with two local fast-food restaurants to purchase discounted gift cards. The restaurants also agreed to shelter those in need until they could return to the church to sleep.
For those struggling with the elements in New Castle County, Brandywine Counseling and Community Services operates a Drop-In Center on Lancaster Avenue in Wilmington during the morning hours.
There, people looking for some warmth can grab a bite to eat, take a hot shower and get some clean clothes. The center stocks toiletries, condoms and other necessities like socks and scarves, while also offering direct access to drug treatment for those suffering from a substance use disorder.
And even for those not ready to get treatment, a warm seat and a welcome hand await.
“We’re seeing about a 20 percent increase in activity,” said Lynn Fahey, Brandywine Counseling’s CEO. “They’re trying to get people hats, gloves, socks, sleeping bags, anything they can.”
The requests for places to spend the night continue, especially as limited shelter space fills.
Jim Martin of Georgetown said the overriding problem is that there simply aren’t enough beds for people.
“There’s no place for some of these folks to go,” he said. “Ninety percent of the people out in the cold during a blizzard are the ones who are actively addicted. And people are afraid to help the actively addicted because it’s a wildcard.”
Martin, an advocate for the homeless who works with the Shepherd's Office, said he is desperately seeking those people trying to brave the cold because there are limited options if they cannot — or will not — seek shelter on their own.
“They would be in a body bag,” he said. “The coroner would come out. It’s not front-page news. That’s what happens. Very quietly, that’s what happens.”
Weathering the weekend
Delaware’s homeless population and the shelters that help them have a long winter ahead, but this cold snap is almost over.
A break from brutal temperatures is expected to come next week, said Assistant State Climatologist Kevin Brinson.
“If we can bear it a little longer, there is some relief in sight,” he said. “It’s not unprecedented, but it’s not common.”
Temperatures below freezing have held steady since Dec. 27, he said. If that streak continues through Sunday – as meteorologists expect – it will tie for the third longest stretch of freezing weather seen in Delaware since record-keeping began in 1948.
“It’s not record-breaking, but it is something we haven’t seen for some time,” Brinson said. The last record-breaking cold streak was in 1979, he said, with 15 days of below-freezing temperatures.
He said the lingering cold all comes down to patterns in the upper atmosphere that enable the frigid weather to linger. A trough in the upper atmosphere has ushered cold air into the eastern two-thirds of the country, and a big ridge over the Atlantic Ocean has locked the bitter cold in place.
Successive weather systems, such as the blizzard that just covered Delmarva in snow, reinforces that cold air. And wind chills like those left in the wake of the storm create subzero conditions.
“We do occasionally get arctic outbreaks,” he said. “But it’s been a while.”
Until the weather breaks, the risk of frostbite, hypothermia and even death remain.
"It's kind of that simple," said Glenn Marshall, Lewes Fire Department spokesman. "This is not the time to be proud. You're not going to make it in these conditions for any extended period."
Back at Immanuel Shelter, those who know they need to stay put for their own safety are trying to keep busy. As cars get stuck on the unplowed road in front of the building, a few helping hands bundle up and offer their assistance for some quick income.
“They want to work. They want to find housing, but they can’t afford it,” Short said, before serving up bowls of chili. “And it’s a shame. It breaks my heart. I’m devoted to them. We’re like family, and that’s what’s important: that we’re family.”
For a full list of Code Purple shelters, go to www.delaware211.org.
Contact Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, email@example.com or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford. Contact Brittany Horn at (302) 324-2771 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @brittanyhorn.