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Local charities and organizations help battle record low temperatures

Surprise cold snap poses danger to area homeless

With wind chills dipping into the single digits overnight, the weather presented life-threatening conditions for those unable to get out of the elements.

The temperature crashed from a mild 64 degrees Monday afternoon to a freeze in the mid-teens in the early hours this morning. That adds up to a change of almost 50 degrees in just 36 hours.

Bartlett House on University Avenue offers emergency shelter to the homeless, but only has the capacity to accommodate 28 individuals.

“We need to work as a community in a concerted collaborative effort to get people into housing so emergency beds are available for situations like this,” said Bartlett Housing Solutions Executive Director Keri DeMasi.

Prolonged exposure to low temperatures can quickly lead to hypothermia. Contact with a cold surface, such as when sleeping on the ground, or wearing clothing wet from precipitation can exacerbate and accelerate the condition. 

Friendship House, along with other local aide organizations and charities, spent the last few days handing out warm clothes in anticipation of today’s record low temperatures.

“We have been collecting blankets, jackets, hats and gloves to make sure that people have been able to adjust,” said Friendship House Program Director and social worker Caitlin Sussman. She said the focus in the lead-up to the cold was, “making sure that we have volunteers trained to help us for these extra hours and that we’re collecting donations.”

Friendship House on Walnut Street normally closes its doors around 4 p.m., but stayed open later last night to help shelter individuals from the cold before Bartlett House opened. Friendship House was also set to open at 4 a.m. this morning, when temperatures were at their lowest.

West Virginia University’s Department of Family Health Multidisciplinary UnSheltered Homeless Relief Outreach of Morgantown program, better known as MUSHROOM, anticipated the cold snap during their semi-weekly rounds.

“They went out last Thursday, took out a lot of sleeping bags and purchased some emergency tents and bivy (bivouac) sacks,” said WVU’s Family Medicine Program Coordinator Holly T. Maroon. “In the winter, normally we don’t have to hand out things this early.”

The store room at Friendship House is stocked with food and warm clothes for Morgantown’s unhoused population. Local charities and programs spent the last few days handing out warm clothes in anticipation of today’s record low temperatures.

The weather caught everyone by surprise.

Just last week, The Emergency Food and Shelter Committee of United Way announced its recent development of a Warming Shelter Plan for the homeless. The plan includes making Spruce Street United Methodist Church a warming shelter on nights colder than 34 degrees, but preparations were not finalized in time for this unseasonable weather.

“This super cold snap came unexpectedly and, although we have much accomplished, we are still not quite ready,” said Health Right Executive Director Laura Jones in an email. “We are not prepared with staffing and volunteers to begin the shelter this week.”

Volunteer training for the warming shelter was held this past weekend, but Friendship House wanted to be certain they were fully prepared before opening the new warming shelter.

“What I found in my experience with social services, if you’re going to provide a service, it’s really important that you can follow through on that,” Sussman said. “We anticipate being ready to open in the next week or so when we have hired enough staff for that very role.”

When the warming shelter is operational, those seeking protection from the elements will first need to go to Bartlett House. When Bartlett is at capacity, they will issue vouchers which can be used by overflow clients to get into the warming shelter at Spruce Street United Methodist Church. 

“This is a new undertaking for both of our groups. It’s a big honor for us to be in somebody else’s space and we just need to make sure we can do these things well,” Sussman said.