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For the homeless, bitter cold can turn deadly fast. This team tries to help.

Jan 6, 2018

When the weather gets as bitterly cold as it is right now, an already-dangerous life becomes downright lethal for people living on the streets.

There are teams who try to bring in them in from the cold, if only for a couple days. But first, they have to find them.

Credit Mariam Elamine / Southwest Solutions

On a bitterly cold afternoon this week, I briefly joined up with one such team searching for the homeless in Detroit. We started out just to the southwest of downtown Detroit, within sight of the bitter, icy gleam of the Detroit River. At last check, it was 9 degrees.

“All right, you ready to take a walk?” Julie Dressler asks me as we pull on our gloves, and hop out of a Jeep parked under an overpass just off West Jefferson Avenue.

As we crunch up a gentle slope and head down toward the river, Dressler says the snow can actually be helpful. “Because we can find footsteps to areas that tells us where people are going,” she explains.

And that’s exactly what Dressler and two of her co-workers from Detroit’s Southwest Solutions are here trying to find out. These footsteps in the snow lead us toward the riverfront, where we find a mini-encampment. Someone is clearly living here, though for the moment at least, they’re not here.

But the team is thorough. Mariam Elamine pries open the steel door that leads to the hollowed-out area under the overpass. “Southwest Solutions, anybody in here?” she shouts.

About two-thirds of it is filled with trash. But on the broad side nearest the road, there are sleeping bags, blankets and other signs of ad-hoc shelter. Elamine thinks three people probably sleep here on a regular basis.

There’s another telltale sign. Ben Tate, the third member of the team, points to something hanging from the from above. They’re hooks, kind of like you’d see in a meat locker. Tate says that’s for food.

“They hang their food up?” I ask.

“Yeah, so animals won’t get into it,” he replies.

But there’s nobody in here right now—and that’s a good thing. With the temperatures hovering near record lows, Tate, Elamine and Dressler are trying to get people off the streets any way they can. Even if it’s only for a couple days, until temperatures warm up to near-normal, as they’re expected to early next week.

Dressler says they don’t force anyone to go anywhere. If they find folks who resist coming in off the streets, they offer them whatever warm clothing they have on hand.

“If they refuse shelter, we accept that,” she says. “But ideally, if we can get people into shelters, or motels if they have an income, just through Sunday, it would avoid a lot of crises.”

Like the veteran they found the other day with a “broken ankle.” Dressler says that in fact, his foot was basically frozen. They did eventually convince him to go to the VA hospital for treatment.

Dressler and her colleagues make up what they call a PATH (Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness) team. Their regular clients are members of Detroit’s chronically homeless population. Usually, they’re also severely mentally ill.

But during severe cold snaps like this, the work changes. Mariam Elamine says they usually do a lot more paperwork, trying to get people benefits or into long-term housing.

But right now, “It’s survival mode,” Elamine says. “It’s all hands on deck, do what we can do to get these folks out of the cold, get them through the night, get them into shelters.”

The Southwest Solutions PATH team. From left to right: Julie Dressler, Mariam Elamine, Ben Tate.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

But even those living in shelters for now usually have to spend at least a few hours a day outside.

Driving down a busy portion of Michigan Avenue, the PATH team spots a small group of people hanging out near the roadside, waiting for a church shelter to open.

One of them is Corey. He’s a big guy, bundled up, friendly and happy to talk.

Corey is from Philadelphia, but he’s been in Detroit about four years, trying to get a foothold of some kind. He has type two diabetes, and that hasn’t helped his situation.

“I can’t work right now in the wintertime, so…I dunno,” Corey says. “I just get something hot to drink, and just try to fall asleep.”

Outside? “Yeah. Sittin’ down,” he says with a laugh.

With the wind biting through the several layers of clothing I have on, that seems unimaginable. But Corey says it doesn’t seem so cold to him right now.

Ben Tate and Corey have a brief chat about insulin, an upcoming doctor’s appointment and the possibility of getting into some long-term housing. Then after passing out some more pairs of gloves to Corey and the others, the PATH team is back in their jeep and back on the hunt.

For the moment, Dressler says things actually look pretty good. “The good news is that we’re not finding a lot of people. Which means that they are hunkered down somewhere, hopefully warm.”

And then there are the people who are still out in plain sight. The team spots a tent pitched in front of another church a little further down Michigan Avenue. Tate pulls the Jeep over so Dressler can get out.

“I’m Julie, with Southwest Solutions PATH team. How are you doing?” Dressler shouts into the front of the tent.

“I don’t need you. 'Bye,” a man’s voice shouts back from inside.

“Do you want any socks?” Dressler presses.

“I don’t want nothing. Just go,” the man insists, before unexpectedly adding: “Have a good day!”

“Thank you! You too,” Dress says, telling me as we walk away that it’s “pretty common” for people to refuse help like this. And there are some people who can, somehow, survive outside in cold like this, at least for a little while.

But of course there are many others, like the man who apparently froze to death on the steps of a Detroit church this week, who can’t survive. Hopefully this man is one who can.