OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — As bitter cold settles in for winter in much of the country's midsection, homeless shelters are operating beyond capacity and officials are worried about the cramped quarters.
Communities have worked to recover from last weekend's winter storm, which brought freezing rain, sleet and snow, but temperatures have struggled to rebound in the Southern Plains.
A man was found dead beneath an Oklahoma City overpass last week in an area where transients are known to congregate. The Oklahoma Medical Examiner's office said the cause and manner of death are pending, but Oklahoma City police attributed the death to the cold weather. With temperatures only slowly rebounding, homeless shelters are serving larger numbers.
"It strains resources," Dan Straughan, executive director of the nonprofit group Homeless Alliance, which seeks to end homelessness in Oklahoma City. "You're feeding more folks than you'd normally have. You're caring for more folks, which means you've got to have more staff on hand."
Overnight homeless shelters in Oklahoma City have an agreement with each other that when the weather gets especially nasty and dangerously cold, they relax their rules to allow people who might have substance abuse or addition issues that precluded them from staying in a shelter under normal circumstances. The shelters also convert rooms for additional space. So last Friday, when temperatures dipped into the teens in the Oklahoma City metro area, more than 100 extra people needed accommodations. Straughan estimated that about 1,000 people took advantage of the various shelters throughout Oklahoma City during the cold snap.
The Salvation Army runs one of the shelters. It normally serves 96 people, but Residential Services Manager Janet Miller said the shelter has averaged about 26 additional men, women and children per night since the storm. The agency also opened warming shelters in Oklahoma City and Norman.
If no more people can be accommodated in the shelter because there is simply no more room, the Salvation Army in Oklahoma City typically reaches out to other shelters to find a place for the individuals, said Jeanean M. South, director of development.
North Texas was also blanketed in ice, bringing about 65 extra people to the Salvation Army in Dallas and 33 in Fort Worth, spokesman Pat Patey said.
"We just make room and accommodate more individuals," Patey said. Two dozen people at the Dallas shelter slept in the lobby, a normal occurrence when numbers swell during extreme heat or cold.
"We just really can't turn anyone away," he said.
A homeless shelter in Nebraska also saw large numbers last Friday night. At Omaha's Siena-Francis House, homeless residents were sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder on cots in the common room. Siena-Francis House has 389 beds, but on Friday night it housed 520 men, women and children.
The extra bodies coupled with harsh outdoor conditions brings another worry for shelter organizers: cabin fever.
Straughan said the sense of restlessness and grumpiness usually sets in after about a week. In recent years, the opening of a day shelter in Oklahoma City has alleviated some of the frustration, as residents can move between the two.
Still, other homeless individuals simply refuse to go to shelters — even in frigid temperatures and snow on the ground — and elect instead to camp out or stay under bridges or overpasses.
Straughan said many who are homeless are attuned to the weather and have warm sleeping bags and wear multiple layers of clothing. The worry, he said, is that portable heaters or campfires could start a dangerous blaze.
Oklahoma City-based nonprofit Be The Change performs outreach to the homeless, offering services and rides to shelters. The group started traveling to different campsites last Tuesday to warn about the pending weather.
"Some go — a lot go — and some decline," Straughn said. "You can't force them."
Associated Press writer Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.
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