Cold and homeless: A deadly combination


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The frigid winds and painful wind chills are a nuisance for most of us, but for West Michigan’s most vulnerable, the cold can be a threat to life and limb.

Grand Rapids police are on the lookout for homeless people who risk frostbite, hypothermia and even death if they don’t get out of the cold.

Body camera footage shows Grand Rapids police officers reaching out to the homeless when the weather turns bitterly cold. (Dec. 7, 2016)

While area hospitals report an uptick in treatment for things like frostbite related to prolonged exposure to the plummeting temperatures, homeless shelters are also seeing more people looking to get out of the cold — including families with children.

Mel Trotter Ministries in the city’s Heartside neighborhood said it was home to 57 children last weekend and last week served 3,500 meals out of its cafeteria.

As the temperature drops below freezing, the mission relaxes some of its criteria for admission and opens its doors to all homeless who need a place to stay.

“We’re here to keep them off the streets so that they aren’t dying,” said Abbey Sladick, spokesperson for Mel Trotter Ministries.

Nationally, about 700 homeless people die due to exposure each year, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

The problem with homelessness in West Michigan has not disappeared as the economy has improved.

In fact, the building boom in the city has led restoration of buildings and even bridge structures that once served as places for the homeless to escape the winds.

That leaves them even more exposed.

“We rely heavily on GRPD to do the outreach for us, make sure that they’re checking those doorways, under bridges and things like that to make sure that people are coming in out of the elements,” Sladick said.

Grand Rapids police supplied 24 Hour News 8 with body camera footage from officers who transported willing homeless people to the shelter.

“It’s their choice to come into the mission or not. We don’t force anyone to do that,” Sladick said

The Servants Center, an advocacy group for the homeless in Grand Rapids, used to have someone who went out to homeless camps to make sure they knew help was available, but that position is currently unfilled.

But anyone can help.

“If you see someone out on the street, maybe homeless, and is hunkered down trying to get out of the elements, approach them if you feel comfortable. Demonstrate compassion to them and then we encourage them to call GRPD because GRPD really helps with transporting them down to the mission,” Sladick said.

Mel Trotter says it could use donations of blankets and pillows for 465 beds, as well as new and gently used coats and hats.

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