Cold weather a hardship for homeless, poor households

First Posted: 1/7/2010

LUMBERTON The first week of the new year brought a cold front that has refused to break, with lows dipping into the teens and high temperatures as much as 17 degrees lower than normal.
Low temperatures mean more in Robeson County than a chilly walk to the car and an extra minute in the morning to let engine warm: In a county with no homeless shelter and a high poverty rate, cold weather means no place for people without shelter to escape the cold and higher heating bills for people who cant afford them.
The normal high for the beginning of January is 53 degrees with a low of 31 degrees, according to the National Weather Services historical average. Last years Jan. 6 was abnormally warm at 70 degrees with a low of 60 degrees. This years Jan. 6 warmed to 42 degrees with a low of 22 degrees.
Lumberton Christian Care Center was the only homeless shelter in the county, but a fire caused the shelter portion of the charity to close in January last year, and it has yet to reopen. In 2008, 250 people used the temporary shelter, open seven days per week.
Now homeless people spend nights with lows of 20 degrees 10 degrees with wind chill sleeping behind buildings, under bridges, in lean-tos in the woods, or other places with wind breaks, said Greg Maynor, a caseworker at the Robeson County Church and Community Center.
They do what they have to do to survive, he said.
RCCCC gives homeless people blankets, warm clothes, and vouchers to stores where they can buy clothing.
Weve seen more people who are homeless over the last year than I think I have ever seen, Maynor said. We have several regulars who come in for assistance and they live under local bridges. We do what we can to make sure they stay warm, and theyll let us know what they need to make it through.
Monday and Tuesday were the coldest days a week into 2010, with lows at 20 degrees and highs just above freezing at 36 degrees. The lowest temperature recorded in North Carolina is -2 degrees on Dec. 28, 1989, in the southeastern part of the state, according to the Midwestern Regional Climate Center, which tracks historical weather data.
Bruce Whitman, a doctor at Southeastern Regional Medical Center for 11 years, said hypothermia is the major cold-weather health concern, particularly for homeless patients and the elderly who may not have good heat in their homes.
This year, a lack of homeless shelters in the area is a big problem, Whitman said. Its hard to send someone out of the hospital and into the cold environment we have now. The hospital tries to find family or a friend who can take them after treatment, but otherwise patients must return to the cold.
Whitman said the hospital emergency room is prepared each year for winter-related conditions like hypothermia and frostbite, but elderly people who live alone need to be watched to ensure their homes stay properly heated.
RCCCC has diverted its emergency funds to help people who cant afford their utility bills in a time when heat is crucial. Emergency assistance is normally used to help people pay for medical costs, rent or utility bills in a pinch, but less emergency money to pull from means funds are being focused on keeping peoples heat on, said RCCCC Director Rev. Jane Esdale.
Maynor said the diversion is short term; the emergency fund will be bolstered once the center receives its Federal Emergency Management Agency money, and then the center will revert back to helping pay for utilities, medicine and rent.
We think were better serving individuals in the cold months with heating bills, Maynor said. Normally we assist with rents, but we feel landlords will work with people on payments, whereas (energy companies) are not as willing to work with people.
We want to make sure peoples power is turned on, especially during cold weather right now.
One-third of Robeson Countys population lives in poverty, and Esdale said she suspects more poor households are spending more money on heating their homes is causing them to depend on food pantries.
RCCCC had 31 people in its food pantry on Monday, but expects the 20,000 pounds of food that stocked its shelves in December will last until April, Esdale said.
It seems as though January is always a higher use month (for the pantry), and weve had a lot of requests for heating assistance, Esdale said. Traditionally the need for food and emergency assistance slows down in February when people get their income tax returns.
When people dont have the need they dont have to turn to us, and that means others can.
The Department of Social Services federally-funded Crisis Intervention Program also helps poor families pay for heating or cooling. At the end of December, before the cold snap, 182 households out of 258 applications were given money to help with their heat bills, said Allyson Martin, food stamps program manager at DSS.
The program targets the elderly and disabled, and households with young children. Recipients may only receive up to $600 annually, and must demonstrate that a crisis kept them from paying their utility bills.
About 4,677 households on food stamps in the county also qualified for Low Income Energy Assistance Program in November. The federally-funded program gives eligible families especially with elderly, disabled, or young members a one-time cash payment in February for heating expenses.
Lumbee Tribe members use the same program to help poor members with their heating bills.
Nationally, a record 4.3 million households applied for assistance through the Low Income Energy Assistance Program in 2009, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, prompting the federal government to allot $5.1 billion for the 2010 program.
There is a chance of snow tonight, and temperatures will remain chilly through the weekend with lows hitting 19 degrees on Sunday, and colder with wind chill but are predicted to warm to the seasonal norm by the middle of next week.
Meanwhile, officials warn people to bundle up before venturing into below-freezing temperatures.
Wear gloves, a scarf to protect the face, especially people with hypertension or cardiac conditions, Whitman said. The head in particular should be covered thats where body heat escapes.

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