Lyle, a fortyish man with a few teeth missing, remembers what it was like to spend an Iowa winter in a tent with no heat.
“You’d bundle up in everything you could find to go to sleep — four layers of clothes, blankets, rugs, anything. I’ve woken up lots of times just lying on the dirt with a blanket or two, shivering, teeth chattering. I’d try to get up — you have to or freeze — and be so stiff I couldn’t move. I’d wave my arms around to get warm, walk or crawl to get the blood going, and pray for God to bring the morning,” Lyle said.
That was before Joppa Outreach began providing heaters and propane to the more than 100 homeless people who live in makeshift shelters in wooded areas around Des Moines.
This winter has been no different. In January 2015, there were 13 nights when temperatures dropped to 15 degrees or colder. Five nights were below zero with savage wind chills. For two weeks, there were six inches or more of snow on the ground.
Joppa has provided 98 heating systems this winter, fueling them by delivering 75 to 80 20-lb tanks of propane each week. It has cost an average of $8,800 per month since late November to provide this lifesaving “Winter Heat for the Homeless” program.
“Those heaters are a Godsend,” says James, a carpenter and a day laborer. “With a heater going, you can get it good and warm in a tent.”
Still, “there’s a problem with the frost when it gets so cold,” he admits. The contrast between the warm, moist air in the tent and the much colder air outside forms frost on walls and roof inside. When sunshine warms things up, the frost drips on everyone and everything inside.
“Water to drink, water to wash with, is your friend,” says Scott, the self-proclaimed mayor of one 30-person campsite. “But when water soaks everything and refreezes, it sure isn’t.” Damp clothes or blankets can hasten hypothermia and frostbite. The heaters also dry the essential blankets and clothes needed to survive sub-freezing temperatures.
Out of Options
“People sometimes ask us why these men and women don’t just go to shelters,” says Joe Stevens, Joppa CEO. “First, shelters are often full — especially in winter. Second, most limit the amount of time a person can stay during a calendar year to just 30 days. However, the city’s newest shelter allows stays up to 90 days, twice per year, but you have to be ‘out’ for 90 days in between stays. Plus, it has been full since opening, with dozens of people sleeping in overflow chairs.”
So, with few exceptions, it’s simply not possible for anyone to stay at a shelter all winter, much less year-round.
In addition, couples cannot stay together in shelters, some people can’t abide by the rules, and others find it hard to fit in. One Joppa client has a back injury and just cannot sleep in the overflow chairs due to severe back pain.
“Homeless people are out there, living in the cold, with nowhere else to go,” said Stevens. “Joppa tries to keep them safe through the winter until we can help them get into housing or a temporary shelter. We believe that’s what we’re called to do for our brothers and sisters.”