Warehouse G

No Compassion

Brutal Winter Cold Is Killing The Homeless

By James Donahue

We can remember the shock of waiting for workers to open the door of the Detroit Public Library on a cold winter morning and being surrounded by a band of ragged, dirty and obviously homeless souls.

My trips to Detroit were for historical research on a book I was writing, and I always had to be at the door early to be assured of a seat at one of the microfilm readers. Those machines were always in demand. Thus I always came early and the homeless were always standing at the door with me.

The difference between what I was doing at the library, and the homeless was obvious. While I was there to work, the others were there to get warm and find a corner in which to get some sleep. They could be found seated at obscure tables and chairs throughout the library, usually sound asleep. Library workers, obviously aware of their presence, expressed a graciousness about them. They just let them sleep.

Some years earlier when working as a bureau reporter at South Haven, Michigan, I became aware of a homeless man in that community who “worked the system” in his own interesting way. He knew the laws of the community, and when cold weather arrived each autumn, he committed a crime that was just serious enough to get him sent to jail for four to five months. Thus he was assured of a warm bed and three meals a day while the winter winds made life unbearable on the outside.

As a reporter I have been keenly aware that homeless people are living among us, often in small and large communities all across the nation. When my wife and I lived in Sedona, Arizona, the rent in that treasured resort place was so high, and the rate of pay so low in most public service jobs, that the people who pumped gas, waited on restaurant tables, or clerked the stores either drove a long way to work from other towns, or they camped out in the forest. We discovered an entire community of homeless forest dwellers in and around Sedona who somehow added to the mystique of the place.

As happens to nearly every human forced to live on the street without food and shelter for any length of time, many of the homeless people we encountered were quite insane. Reality for them became so twisted they no longer knew right from wrong, and theft, begging and rummaging through trash bins for garbage to eat became a way of life.

It was as late as 1999 that we were reading stories about city councils of major metropolitan communities who were attempting to solve the problem of homelessness by passing laws making it illegal to be homeless. It did not seem to occur to them that what was needed was a form of socialism . . . a building of simple, furnished, and heated shelters in which these people could find the thing they lacked . . . a home. All these laws did was force the homeless underground. They found shelter in sewer systems, abandoned buildings and other dark places where they could no longer be easily seen.

That was then. This is now.

Since the housing bubble burst in 2008, not only has the nation’s economy gone into crisis mode, but the number of people left homeless has multiplied by unspeakable numbers. News stories are breaking out all over as reporters find people living either in cardboard boxes under highway bridges, staying with “friends,” packing community shelters, or defiantly squatting in the houses they were evicted from.

In many instances, the jails are getting crowded with people who chose crime as a way of finding a place to sleep and eat.

But this winter, as the severe winter cold has gripped the nation, authorities are beginning to find the bodies.

On January 23, Larry Andrews, a homeless man in Detroit, was found dead in the cardboard shanty he made for himself in an alley. The night he froze to death the temperature dipped to near zero. Police said it was the latest in a series of deaths from the cold not only in Detroit, but in several northern cities. They said homeless shelters and warming centers were up and running, but all were filled to overcapacity and people were being turned away.

The cold this year has been driven so far south it has been killing homeless people in places like New Orleans. A woman said she found Janice Collins, 48, dead on a sidewalk. She said she noticed the woman lying there and brought a blanket to help her keep warm, but that it was too late.

That same cold night, Michael Przesmycki, 54, formerly of Michigan, was found dead in a parking lot near an abandoned strip mall. He had been living behind the mall, police said.

Similar stories are being reported in New York, Minneapolis, and all across the United States. One sad report from Grand Rapids was the death of Thomas Pauli, a convicted sex offender, who was turned away from shelters and church-supported warming facilities all over the city because of the stigma attached to him. Pauli slept outside, behind a recycling shop, where his frozen body was found. He was crouched on his hands and knees in the snow.

Where is our heart America? Have we become so enamored by materialism that we have lost our compassion?