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Frigid temperatures dangerous for area's homeless

POSTED: January 7, 2014 12:29 a.m.

For local resident Michael King, the struggle with cold weather is all too familiar.

He spent about a year with no home before receiving help from a local homeless shelter.

“You don’t think about anything but staying warm and safe,” he said. “You have to get a good coat and blankets, usually through the churches, and then you try to find a safe place to lay down and bury yourself under blankets.”

When it is especially cold, most homeless people rely on shelters and church outreach programs to stay warm, King said.

However, the large number of people seeking refuge can create a great deal of pressure for local shelters like Good News at Noon and My Sister’s Place.

According to a 2011 study by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, 201 homeless people live in Hall County, but there are only 51 emergency and transitional beds available to them.

Good News at Noon, which provides emergency shelter to homeless people in Gainesville and Hall County, spent Monday preparing for a surge of patrons.

“The weather can put a great demand on us quickly,” said Fletcher Law, director of missions for the organization. “We predict 60 to 80 people will come in (Monday) night, when we usually have about 25 people on a normal night.”

The shelter also expected to serve food to about 150 people, which is about 50 more than usual.

“If they need a place to stay, we will not turn them away in this weather spree,” he said. “We’ve had several churches call and offer help. If we have to put them in the dining hall, we’re going to get them inside. Everybody is welcome.”

Without assistance from shelters, people may be exposed to freezing temperatures for an extended period, leading to frostbite and/or hypothermia. Both can cause death, according to William Davis, vice chief of emergency medicine at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

Hypothermia typically happens over a period of hours when people’s bodies cannot maintain a normal temperature; especially at risk are those with little body mass, little body fat, and the older or very young, he said. Symptoms include shivering, confusion, slurred speech and drowsiness.

Dave Palmer, public information officer for the local district of the Georgia Department of Public Health, said the condition can cause people to fall asleep and freeze to death.

Davis echoed that.

“Unfortunately, often the severe hypothermic patient does not make it to the hospital alive, such as the homeless without shelter or the elderly without heat,” he said.

The condition can sometimes be mistaken for drug or alcohol intoxication, he added.

Frostbite is not usually fatal, but can lead to permanent problems and often requires amputation.

“This ‘freezing’ of the skin typically begins (in) fingers, toes, nose, earlobes and can occur in minutes in a cold freezing wind like we expect here (on Monday),” Davis said. “With prolonged exposure, this progresses to involve the full thickness of the skin — like a burn — and then the muscle and bone, resulting in amputations and potentially death.”

He said wet or tight clothing can make it worse, and people can suffer frostbite simply by grasping something cold like a metal post.

Those experiencing either condition need immediate medical care, including adding clothing or blankets to warm them, along with warm drinks.

Hot packs should not be put on injured or exposed skin, Davis said.


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