For homeless people, the cold is life-threatening
New Year’s Day brought the fifth consecutive day of temperatures below 20 degrees to Boston and fears from officials and homeless people that the sustained frigid weather was taxing the city’s resources and imperiling the lives of people on the streets.
About 1,700 homeless people have filled shelters — several hundred more than usual, city officials said, straining resources and sending advocates, police, and other emergency personnel on searches to bring more people inside.
“It has never been this bad,” said Karen LaFrazia, president of St. Francis House, the day shelter where she has worked for 20 years. “It’s just so frozen. I see people coming in with their hands bloated, skin purple. . . . You can sort of see people hunkered into themselves.”
With Tuesday projected to hit a high of 18 degrees, the city is poised to record its second-longest stretch of consecutive days — six in a row — with temperatures below 20, said Hayden Frank, meteorologist for the National Weather Service. The record of seven days, he said, stretched from Dec. 29, 1917, to Jan. 4, 1918. And while temperatures are expected to rise briefly on Wednesday into the 20s, he said, snow is likely to follow Thursday, and then the temperatures will plunge again through Saturday.
It was 12 degrees at Logan Airport on Monday at 1 p.m., Frank said, and the windchill put it 6 below zero. And in cities such as Boston where wind funnels between buildings, he said, the windchill can drop even lower. At temperatures of 15 below, he said, just 30 minutes outside can cause frostbite to exposed skin.
“You don’t want anybody out in these subzero temperatures; it’s just terrifying,” said Jim Greene, assistant director for Street Homeless Initiatives at the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development.
The number of cold-related injuries citywide was not available Monday night, but a spokesperson for Massachusetts General Hospital said the emergency room has seen an uptick in cases of hypothermia and frostbite.
City shelters and places such as the Pine Street Inn have added beds, Greene said, and South Station has opened for overnight emergency shelter-in-place. Workers have been out 24 hours a day driving outreach vans, handing out food and blankets, and trying to get people to come to shelters.
But about 40 people around the city have refused to come inside, said Greene. Many of them, said Greene and others who work in shelters, have serious mental health issues that keep them from making good decisions. Some are struggling with addiction or become overwhelmed in crowded shelters. Those are the people at the highest risk, officials said.
Outreach and city workers and first responders are on the lookout and already know most of the homeless people who refuse to come inside, Greene said. They are checking on them regularly, he said. Recently, one homeless man who workers know has suffered cold injuries in the past was out in his electric wheelchair, Greene said, and the power ran down, leaving him unable to get around. Boston police found him and took him to Mass. General, Greene said.
But with the bracing cold, there are simply fewer people outside to notice when a homeless person is in trouble, he said. The general public should be aware of the danger, he said, and be ready to call 911 if they see a person in distress.
As the cold weather drags on, the crush of people in need of services is straining the shelter system and city resources. LaFrazia, of St. Francis House, said her workers have picked up extra hours and are serving extra meals. They are asking for donations of hats, gloves, hand warmers, winter coats, and footwear — they’re giving out supplies as fast as they come in, she said.
The Pine Street Inn, said communications director Barbara Trevisan, has enough coats — the Patriots made a generous donation last week — but needs financial donations. They’ve brought in extra staff, she said; their outreach vans, which usually operate at night, have been going 24 hours a day; and they’ve made room in their shelters for 30 to 100 people each night.
At South Station, which on Monday was scheduled to be open overnight for the eighth night in a row, from about 35 to 125 people have crowded in nightly, said MBTA Police Superintendent Richard Sullivan.
“I’ve been staying here for a week,” said one homeless woman at the station, who asked to be identified only as Christine. “There are really no places where you can’t get kicked out. Even when it’s cold.”
The woman coughed hard, her asthma exacerbated by the cold and by her inability to afford an inhaler. She travels with a group, she said, and they all look out for each other.
“Socks, blankets, if we see one of them who needs help, and we have extra, we give it,” said her friend, who also asked to be identified by his first name, Joe. “Our policy is not hungry, not thirsty, not cold.”
Sullivan said “the MBTA is committed to being a good and responsible neighbor” by offering a warm place for the homeless. Still, it hasn’t been easy: on one recent night, a police officer got a knee injury during a scuffle with one of the people staying overnight, Sullivan said. The officer was taken to the hospital, and the other man was arrested — and attacked the booking officer, he said.
But homeless people say they are grateful to have places to go, and city and shelter officials say they will do whatever it takes to keep people safe as one freezing day drags into another. “On days like this, it’s kind of, ‘Keep everybody alive,’ ” said Trevisan.