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Cold Especially Dangerous For Homeless

CEDAR RAPIDS (CBS 2/FOX 28) -- In 30 below zero wind chills frostbite can strike in less than a half hour. The frigid temperatures in Eastern Iowa this week remind some of the incident seven years ago when Steven Howard appeared to be drunk and a local shelter refused to let him inside.  He was found dead the next morning.  Since that time local agencies have worked hard to help the homeless and go out of their way to keep people safe.  Its a little after 4:00 pm at the Green Square Meals site in downtown Cedar Rapids and scores of people are already starting to line up.  Volunteers started preparing the free meal hours ago.  Tonight more than 80 people will come in from the cold for a steaming bowl of cauliflower soup, a big salad, pumpkin pie and a hot cup of coffee.  Its hard to imagine wondering if it will be enough to help  survive the brutal conditions when the last person is asked to leave around 7:00.

Among the volunteers, Colleen Morrissey is busy in the kitchen, arranging food and making sure everyone gets a smile as they slide their food trays along  the counter.  She doesnt have to imagine what its like on the other side.  A few short years ago, she was in this line and living on the streets on nights like this.

"There are places you can get clothing and these guys have been layering up for weeks.  Take a look out there .. most of them in here are carrying three and four layers to stay warm."

Colleen says theres no way to sugarcoat it, life outdoors in the winter is not something you would wish on anyone.  She says a bout with depression was the turning point and the beginning of two years of worrying about nothing but the next meal and how to stay warm enough or cool enough to survive.  During the day Colleen says she used to spend a lot of time at the library because she likes to read.  She found if you were willing to hustle you could find meals being served somewhere all seven days of the week.  She also learned if youre going to be homeless in the upper Midwest, you better find the right gear to carry with you.

"Multi-layered clothes, the multi-layered blankets or sleeping bags and the biggest thing is a piece of cardboard underneath you, because most places youre gonna be sleeping are frozen or concrete."

The Salvation Army says 400 is a fair estimate of the homeless population in the Cedar Rapids area.  Some sleep in flooded out abandon homes, others get out of the wind under interstate overpasses and on this night still others are part of a capacity crowd at the Catholic Worker House.  Larissa Ruffin says they can follow overflow rules on a night like this, which means if the phone rings in the middle of the night, she will make room for one more.

"Bring them over .. come on over.  Even if theyre sleeping on the floor, even if theyre sleeping in a chair, whatever it is, theyre not sleeping outside and not sleeping in a car in this frigid temperature."

Back at Green Square Meals Colleen Morrissey are thinking ahead to New Years Day and reminding some of their regulars that the dining room will be open extended hours to enjoy a meal,  chat with friends and volunteers and get in out of the cold.  They wonder out loud about some of their homeless clients they havent seen in a while.  Colleen surmises they are hunkered down and just dont want to get out of their hiding places in the freezing conditions.  But she also worries about them.

"We read about it almost every year.  Somebody passes away, they freeze to death, hypothermia, they go to sleep and never wake up."

Colleen says shes convinced all services in Cedar Rapids are better now than when she was homeless, but she says the only thing that really matters on a night when its below zero  is getting off the streets.
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