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Polar vortex makes Georgia colder than Alaska: How to help homeless find shelter

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Alaska has nothing on Georgia as the temperatures in this state plummeted Monday night and remained at their lowest in years on Tuesday morning. According to a Jan. 7 report from WALB News Channel 10, the state saw lows of 6 degrees below zero in the North Georgia mountain area, and the highs were not much better in Atlanta, which reported an 8 degree temperature early Tuesday morning.

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Wind chill advisories as well as frostbite and hypothermia warnings have been issued. And those who don't have to be out in the dangerous weather are taking heed. But then there are those who don't have such an option, as they live their lives outdoors, in the elements, and out of necessity. I'm talking about the homeless.

Warming shelters are out there for them, like this one set up in Dalton, Georgia. But getting the homeless information about shelters like this, which might not be erected or organized until the last minute in an unexpected storm, is the hard part.

Homeless people aren't typically online using Facebook or other social media sites. They don't typically subscribe to the newspaper or even own or use a radio. So they don't always know when a storm is coming or where the designated shelter site will be this time. And that's why it is usually left up to police and the community to get the word out to those living on the fringe of society that there is help when they need it.

But police officers are supposed to be keeping down crime and protecting the community from harm, not really going to the outskirts of the town and looking under bridges for those who are homeless. And community members don't typically scour dark streets at night out of safety concerns, so don't look for them to be knocking on boxes set up by the homeless in far out places. And that's why some warming shelters are ready to meet the needs of their community but the homeless aren't there to take advantage of it.

In Whitfield County, CERT team leaders try to coordinate with others in their community to try and assist those in their geographical area with the support they need in times of crisis and emergency conditions, and to get the word out that they will be doing it. Just this week they partnered with Red Cross and Harvest Outreach, according to Claude C. Craig, the Whitfield County 911 Center Director.

We want to provide the support other organizations and the community needs at times like these," Craig said.

And they did, their volunteers and support staff showing up in droves to assist a local shelter operator named Sheila Reed with her last minute warming shelter set up at the North Georgia Fairgrounds building. CERT, along with their volunteers, helped by providing the homeless with blankets, pillows, coats and clothing, as well as hot drinks, food and the setting up of loaned Red Cross cots.

And Georgia's dangerously cold temperatures should have driven the homeless to seek warmer places to sleep last night, like that of the CERT-supported operation, but only three of the homeless in Whitfield County stayed at the warming shelter Monday night, according to CERT Coordinator Amy Cooley.

Local hospitals, churches and other organizations may have provided shelter to some of the others, but there is one other possible scenario to explain the low turnout that resulted this time at this shelter: Homeless people have baggage, literally. Shopping carts, personalized cardboard box living spaces, and personal possessions of a homeless person are all they have left to tie them to anything physical, and they are reluctant at times to leave it--even in a winter storm--for fear it will not be there when they return.

The homeless can't lug all of their items with them, but even if they could, how far would they have to travel on foot (carrying their possessions) before they reached the nearest shelter? They often refuse to leave their possessions in order to go where it is warmer, even if their life could depend upon it. And that makes it hard for the warming shelters like that in Dalton to accomplish their goal of helping those in danger of hypothermia, frostbite and more.

But some of the homeless did leave their property Monday night in Whitfield County, even if they didn't do it to spend the night in the warming shelter started by Harvest Outreach.

"7-8 came for supplies and left; 7-8 people were fed," CERT Coordinator Amy Cooley said.

Whitfield County's CERT leaders hope citizens in their community will get the word out and tell all the homeless in their area about the warming shelter that will continue to be open all day and night again for those who need it. And that means anyone, including those who may be displaced right now or people traveling through the North Georgia area, on their way to somewhere else. And they keep weather updates and other information posted on their CERT Facebook page for easy community access.

It [the North Georgia Fairgrounds warming shelter facility] will be open at least until 7 a.m. Wednesday morning," Amy Cooley said, "And we would love to encourage people to spread the word and fill the shelter."

The warming shelter is located at 500 Legion Drive, in Dalton, Georgia, near the Kroger and Kmart located off of Glenwood Avenue, which turns into Cleveland Hwy. Those wishing to volunteer to assist at the warming shelter or make donations of needed items can contact CERT Coordinator Amy Cooley at acooley@whitfieldcountyga.com, who says, "We have great volunteers who serve our community well and make this program great!"

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