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This winter's temperature swings are having health consequences for homeless people

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Homeless people in the Midwest have been suffering through giant temperature swings this winter. The weather has brought on waves of injuries and disease, especially for those who would rather brave the elements than go into shelters. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The brutal cold earlier this winter in Kansas City has inflicted a lot of pain.

E: (Coughing).

MORRIS: In a small, crowded waiting room here sits a big guy in city overalls and a military-style cap with tears streaming down his cheeks.

E: OK, it's an emergency. It's, like, hurting really bad. I mean, I cannot stand how bad it hurts. It's almost like being sprayed in the face with mace or pepper spray. Every time you blink, just sand is just rolling over your eyeballs.

MORRIS: Like many homeless people, this man felt uncomfortable using his last name, so he didn't give it. He goes by E, and E says that during recent subzero nights, he's resorted to burning lumber treated with preservatives like arsenic, copper and chromium to stay warm. He says the toxic smoke wrecked his vision. Normally he burns plastic.

E: The plastic doesn't hurt my eyes. It's the wood. And then burning those chemicals, and then it gets in your eyes.

MORRIS: Not everyone makes it into the clinic. Last month a homeless man was found dead in the bitter cold just a few blocks from here. And record lows have been sandwiched by rainy days, causing more misery. KK Assmann is founder and CEO of Care Beyond the Boulevard, a group that provides free medical assistance.

K K ASSMANN: We have seen quite a bit of trench foot. We've seen some beginning and then some late stages frostbite.

MORRIS: Trench foot, from living in wet shoes, plagued soldiers in World War I. Frostbite, like Rodney Jenks has, can lead to amputations.

RODNEY JENKS: Well, that hurts. That stings and feels like pins and needles. You can barely feel your toes and just it hurts.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm going to take your blood pressure. Which arm...

MORRIS: Assmann says the off and on harsh weather also triggers disease.

ASSMANN: We're seeing COVID and flu right now. We have people in congregate shelters, right? So you have people head to toe to head to toe sleeping to get warm. And they're also coughing and breathing and all of the other things.

MORRIS: And then there are folks who won't go to shelters at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

ASSMANN: Medical.

MORRIS: Assmann is dropping off blankets and tarps at a big wooded homeless camp near downtown Kansas City. Rats scurry between weather-beaten tents.

ASSMANN: There was an older lady, and I touched her hands, and they were ice cold. And I was like, you know, you guys, there's a shelter, a cold weather shelter. And she said, I can't go. And I said, why can't you go? She said, because my dog's here.

MORRIS: Pets aren't allowed in most shelters, so pet owners face an excruciating choice when temperatures plummet. Thomas Castro, with singed eyebrows and sooty hands, has other reasons for staying out here.

THOMAS CASTRO: No rules. Seriously, we're adults. We can actually get along. I don't like that feeling like I'm a number or livestock or even an exhibit, if you will.

MORRIS: Shelters work hard to accommodate as many people as possible, but it's a tough task.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

MORRIS: Marvin Gaddy takes refuge on cold days here at the public library, but he spends most of his nights under a bridge. He's not comfortable with all of the people in shelters.

MARVIN GADDY: They put everybody into a shelter together. And you got people just walking around all night because they're on drugs. You got mentally ill people just talking to theirself (ph) all night, you know? And it's hard to rest.

MORRIS: Gaddy says the shelters are dangerous. E, the guy with smoke-damaged eyes, avoid shelters, too, and tries to keep himself awake at night outside.

E: I try not to sleep in nighttime. I try to sleep in the daytime, where people can kind of watch and keep eye and make sure no one's doing anything crazy while you're sleeping.

MORRIS: He's got reasons. He's seen people attacked and robbed in their sleep. He says he's seen campfires explode and a vacant house burn down because of reckless behavior.

E: I've learned a lot living out on the streets and stuff like that. I've learned a lot. You have to really know what you're doing out here to survive.

MORRIS: Local care providers say more and more people face tackling that steep learning curve necessary to stay alive while homeless. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Morris
Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.
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