Many of you, along with the people we serve and the ministry volunteers, endured brutally cold temperatures last week. A local reporter experienced the cold in a unique way and shared his story. Please enjoy the article below taken from the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram:
Surviving the Streets: Eau Claire Homeless Residents Do What They Can to Endure the Bitter Cold
by Julian Emerson, Leader-Telegram staff February 2, 2019
One after another they arrived in a downtown parking lot on a bitterly cold Tuesday night, seeking winter clothing, or food, or water, or advice, or solace, or maybe a mix of all of that.
A man with a gray-white beard speckled with frost approached a group of volunteers with Chippewa Valley Street Ministry and sought gloves and a bottle of water. He chatted with two volunteers, thanking them and describing the rigors of spending a frigid day in which the temperature failed to climb above 0 degrees on the street.
“It’s hard out here on days like this, that’s for sure,” the man said, then turned to cross South Barstow Street toward the Sojourner House homeless shelter where he hoped to spend the night.
A moment later Street Ministry pastor Mike Henry talked with a frail-looking man who seemed overwhelmed by surviving as a homeless person. The white puffs of breath escaping his mouth as he talked were testament to the temperature of 14 degrees below zero.
Henry talked with the man, asking him about his day and telling him the street ministry would be there again the following night, part of the group’s expanded hours during the week because of the relentless cold.They finished their conversation and the man ambled slowly and unsteadily toward Sojourner House.
“That poor guy has a brain tumor,” Henry said as the man continued across the street. “He seems so tired. I don’t know how he’s going to make it through the winter.”
Then Henry turned to help another man seeking assistance. The man grabbed a pastry and learned from Henry that street ministry volunteers would be at the same parking lot across the street from Sojourner House, 618 S. Barstow St., Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings.
“Thank you for what you do,” the man said, then crossed the street as a snow cloud buffeted by a strong wind enveloped him, then quickly swirled past.
On this arctic night on which the temperature would plummet to 30 degrees below zero and windchill readings reached minus 48, each step into a brisk breeze felt like a trying endeavor. The faces of many seeking assistance from the street ministry were painted red after too long spent in the frosty conditions. Others faces were a ghastly, pale color not much different from the snow around them.
One woman, who said she was 38 but appeared much older, bowed her stocking-capped head as she trudged along a sidewalk. When she reached ministry volunteers, she asked for gloves, food and water.
“Damn it’s cold out here,” she said as she munched on a pasty half frozen in the bitter air. “Living on the streets in this weather is tough.”
Standing in the cold among homeless residents and street ministry volunteers brought back a flood of memories.
Five years ago, during a historically cold winter in Eau Claire, former Leader-Telegram photojournalist Marisa Wojcik and I spent several months with members of Eau Claire’s homeless population. We went with them to Sojourner House. We spent time in a bus and other vehicles where some lived. We hung out with them at the Positive Avenues day shelter. We walked the streets with them, at all hours, in some of the coldest temperatures recorded in this city.
During that winter, bit by bit, person by person, we got to know some of this city’s people without homes of their own. As we spent time with them, they shared their stories with us.
They described how they had become homeless, how their lives had unraveled with a lost job or a major medical malady or a broken relationship or the death of a loved one. They told how addiction had gotten the best of them, how mental health problems had transformed once-promising lives into chaos, how their dreams seemed so far away. For some, those dreams seemed to have disappeared.
Homeless people shared good times too, how they helped one another, how they freely gave what little they had to each other, how they sometimes found joy among shared misery, how they gave up coveted beds at the shelter on the coldest night to others and headed out into the dark, uncertain of what was to come. Some still aspired to their dreams.
On this bitterly cold Tuesday night, a night that reminded me of so many similar frigid ones five winters ago, I decided to resurrect the past and return to Eau Claire’s streets to see how the city’s homeless residents were faring amid potentially deadly cold temperatures.
An elderly, bearded man strode slowly, deliberately toward the Chippewa Valley Street Ministry gathering. The vehicles assembled there rumbled, engines struggling hard against the surrounding cold, the exhaust forming in seemingly solid clouds in the arctic air.
The man’s eyes looked as tired as his slow gait. He hunched forward to offset the weight of his backpack. He asked a street ministry volunteer for water, then looked off in the distance. Then he told me he had spent the previous night outdoors, a night on which the overnight low had reached 24 degrees below zero.
“Well, I didn’t sleep much,” the man told me. “I walked around as much as I could. I was afraid if I fell asleep, I might not wake up.”
A short time later the street ministry volunteers packed up and headed home. Bundled in many layers, I headed north through downtown, my eyes peeled for others out on this bitter night.
The streets were mostly empty. An eerie silence surrounded me, broken briefly by the crunchy sound of boots on snow, then a man entering his car, the door closing and his engine chugging off into the distance.
I turned a corner and continued north, the wind searing my eyes and nose, the only part of my face not covered by a facemask. My eyelashes were frozen, coated in thin ice. The two pairs of gloves on each hand weren’t enough to ward off the cold, and my fingers stung.
As I continued my trek I thought back to five winters ago, to coming across homeless people wandering desolate downtown streets on late nights, trying their best to stave off the cold, to remain alive. I turned another corner and nearly walked into a large man similarly bundled in multiple layers lugging a large backpack and a plastic bag.
I asked him if he was homeless. He stopped and looked at me quizzically, as if he didn’t understand. He seemed disoriented, and the streetlights showed his face was bright pink. After a moment he shook his head affirmatively. I told him Sojourner House, just a few blocks away, likely had space for him. I asked him if he knew where it was and he mumbled “Yes.” I urged him to go there, and he shook his head again, then headed in that direction.
I walked for a bit again, then crossed the Grand Avenue Bridge. As I made my way over the Chippewa River the already piercing wind bit even harder, inducing an instant headache. The small bit of my exposed skin burned and I felt momentarily dizzy.
“How does anyone survive a night on the streets in these conditions?” I thought as I continued through the howling polar gale.
A homeless man who would only tell me his first name, Larry, knows all about surviving overnights outdoors in all kinds of conditions. He said he has been homeless in Eau Claire for years. His weathered face is evidence of the tough conditions he endures.
Wrapped in many blankets, Larry survived last week’s historic cold snap, making it despite overnight nighttime windchill readings that were as low as 54 below zero. When I spoke with him Wednesday, he discussed living outdoors in a matter-of-fact manner.
“I’ve survived cold nights before, and I’ll keep surviving them,” he said.
Steven Shipman survived too. The homeless man said he slept overnight Wednesday, when temperatures plummeted to 30 below, in layers of clothing and two sleeping bags in a garage in downtown Eau Claire. He said he hoped to land a space in Sojourner House the following night.
I recrossed the Chippewa River Tuesday night, this time under the bright glow of the lighted Phoenix Park Bridge amid the dark nighttime sky, and continued past the Pablo Center at the Confluence, the arts center lit blue and green. A short time earlier I had seen evidence of a camp along the river’s west bank but nobody was there.
I turned east and walked along the pedestrian/bike path hugging the Eau Claire River’s south side. Just before the path crossed the river footprints left the path and headed into a wooded area. I followed, knowing that site and a nearby cave along the river were places homeless people sometimes spend nights.
Moments later I spied a tent in an out-of-the way spot, but its inhabitant wasn’t there. Nobody was in the cave either, although the many footprints in the new-fallen snow were evidence that spot was being used.
Some of my fingers still burned while others had lost feeling. Despite being protected by three layers, my legs were nearly numb too. I had been out in this deep cold for nearly three hours, and I decided it was time to head home.
I made my way back through downtown, eager to reach warmth. As I turned my head I spied two homeless men, huddled in a doorway, trying to escape winter’s icy fingers. I directed them to Sojourner House. No, they said. They would be OK. I wondered how.
In some ways much has changed regarding homelessness in Eau Claire since this newspaper published a series of stories, photographs and videos titled “On the Streets” depicting the lives of homeless people. Those articles prompted strong reactions by many and served to help kick off a series of efforts to help that population.
In the wake of those stories, churches and others donated money to various homeless-related causes. Various groups formed to address challenges faced by homeless people. Polices were changed. A new program, Housing First, designed to provide housing for chronically homeless residents, was implemented in Eau Claire. Just as importantly, those stories served to shine a light on homelessness in Eau Claire, to make more people aware that some people in this city simply don’t have homes.
But my frosty walk reminded me that in other ways, despite the good efforts of many local agencies, much work remains to address homelessness in our community. Just like five years ago, the Sojourner House, operated by Catholic Charities, and other shelters overseen by Family Promise of the Chippewa Valley, Western Dairyland Community Action Agency and Hope Gospel Mission report being full much of the time, and waiting lists of people hoping to receive shelter and services are common.
Exact figures regarding how many people in Eau Claire are homeless are tough to come by, but the numbers are at least in the hundreds. In addition to full shelters, more than 300 Eau Claire school district children are homeless annually. Some people call cars, garages, the outdoors and other places home. Many others stay with whomever will take them in, often changing locations frequently and at a moment’s notice.
The issue could become even more challenging. A shortage of available housing in Eau Claire has driven up the cost of renting or owning a home significantly in recent years, making it harder for many to afford housing. People with past evictions or convictions face difficulties finding landlords willing to rent to them in such a tight market. Western Dairyland recently received federal funding to expand its Housing First program but can’t find enough willing landlords to provide housing to more homeless clients. Maples Mobile Home Park on Eau Claire’s north side is in danger of being shut down because of its ramshackle condition, and many of its residents likely would wind up homeless.
Many people across the Chippewa Valley do many good deeds to help homeless people, including donations of winter clothing, blankets, food and other items. Last week such efforts and a fundraiser organized by acting City Council President Andrew Werthmann that resulted in more than $36,000 for Chippewa Valley Street Ministry garnered news headlines.
Those acts and others show the caring spirits of many here. But a more comprehensive approach is necessary to make substantial strides to reduce Eau Claire’s homeless population. Local government officials are attempting to come up with money to work further with New York-based homeless consultant Erin Healy to devise a new plan to curb homelessness here.
Regardless of what strategy is attempted, it seems that more resources will be needed to seriously reduce homelessness. Where those assets come from, and whether Eau Claire will make people living on the streets a priority, remains to be seen.
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