Bitter cold: Temperature drop adds to misery for Minnesotans in need

Shopper Diana Webster at Joseph's Coat
Shopper Diana Webster looks for winter items at Joseph's Coat in St. Paul. Webster is a regular shopper at the store. "I like shopping here. Really appreciate them," she said.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

Yvonne Hill and her 14-year-old son waited in line outside Joseph's Coat in St. Paul last week as temperatures dipped into the 20s. Her son shivered and pulled the tiger-striped blanket closer around his shoulders as a cold wind blew down West 7th Street.

Hill and dozens of others in line came to the store soon after it opened hoping to find warm clothes. Joseph's Coat gives clothes and other items away for free.

"It was kind of a long line, but I have seen a lot of people leaving with coats, and I was hoping that when we came in, maybe we could grab one," said Hill, who works nights cleaning offices. "But I think maybe there's not too many left."

• How to help and how to get help: Joseph's Coat | Dorothy Day Center | Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless

For the 10,000 homeless Minnesotans and the many others in need, the bitter mid-November cold that dropped into the state is more than just an early hassle. It creates its own special misery, forcing some into an early season scramble for warm clothes and a place to stay off the street.

A bag-ful of winter clothes from a shopper.
Diana Webster tries to pack her finds from Joseph's Coat into one bag. On the store's one-bag giveaway day, patrons can take one full bag of items with them.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

"This is not a want in Minnesota, it's a need — to have a jacket, to have mittens, to have a warm cap," said Cheryl Stern, executive director of Joseph's Coat. She estimated about 400 people come through the store on a typical winter shopping day. "In the summertime, you can make do because you're not going to get frostbitten, you're not going to suffer exposure problems."

The store is only open for shopping two days a week. On other days, the two employees and roughly 134 volunteers try to deal with the flood of donations. An entire back storage room is often packed to the ceilings as the holidays approach, which Stern calls the store's "silly season."

"We get hundreds [of coats] in, and hundreds go out," Stern said. "Yesterday, with the temperatures, all of the coats we had in went out — we had none left. Then it's really hard to tell people when they're cold, 'Sorry, they're gone.'"

When Hill and her son walked out of the store, past the line of others still waiting to get in, neither one had a coat. "It's just the world, the economy," Hill said. "Especially, I'm a single a parent, I have two sons, teenagers, so it's kind of rough on me."

Shoppers are lined up and waiting to check out.
Shoppers wait in line to check out at Joseph's Coat. Volunteers said about 300 to 500 shoppers visit the store on its giveaway days.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

Charity Doghor of St. Paul was also at Joseph's Coat searching for warm clothes for her children and husband. The nearby rack for scarves, gloves and winter hats was almost bare.

"Some of us here, the money we make, when we work, we use it for food — not everybody has the pleasure to go to the super-malls to shop," she said. "I work a part-time job, so my money, I feed myself my kids and my family with it."

The nearby Dorothy Day Center usually closes during the day so shelter staff can clean and get ready for the influx of people again at night, but on very cold days, the lobby stays open as a refuge from the cold.

The center doesn't usually open its overflow space until January, but this year that opened in September, said program director Gerry Lauer. The shelter has space for about 208 mats on the main floor and another 50 or so beds in the overflow rooms.

A volunteer helping a shopper at Joseph's Coat.
Volunteer Alice Vega, right, helps a shopper who is looking for winter coats at Joseph's Coat. Vega says as the weather gets colder, more and more people are asking for winter garments, but the store is low on winter coats, blankets, and long underwear to supply their guests.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

"The more dangerous the outside weather becomes, the rougher it is for folks," Lauer said. "Instead of seeing the crowd at the Dorothy Day Center and saying, 'I'm not sure I'd be comfortable there,' that goes out the window, 'I need to be safe, I need to be in from the weather.'"

One of the bigger problems faced by the homeless is storage, so center staff try to put out boxes of cold-weather gear when temperatures drop.

"You and I may pull some boxes out of our closet and get the scarves and gloves, our folks don't have that ability," Lauer said. "They may have yesterday's dirty clothes and tomorrow's clean clothes and that might be it."

Even when it gets very cold, some people resist the chaos that can fill the crowded Dorothy Day Center.

Verlinda Flax sleeps in a tent with her boyfriend, but comes to the center during the day to warm up and get food. She's slept at the center, but prefers her own space.

A volunteer checks the back room to help a guest.
Volunteer Alice Vega checks the supplies in the store's back room.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

"The difference here is peace of mind, and just being able to relax and not have to deal with all the noise, the things that come of being in a drop-in center with tons of other people, tons of other attitudes and personalities," said Flax, who moved to Minnesota from Indiana and has been living in the tent while she looks for a job.

"It gets difficult, but when you kind of prepare ahead of time, you weatherize the best you can for living outside," Flax said. "I would try to use my common sense and know that if it got too cold, my body would tell me, and common sense would say, 'Well, it's time to go in.'"

There were some 130 cases of homeless people dying on the streets last year, although not all deaths were related to exposure, said Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless spokeswoman Kenza Hadj-Moussa.

"Most people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota are children and families and youth — they're kids in the classrooms and riding the bus," Hadj-Moussa said. "They're not necessarily people you'd think are homeless, but that's where our greatest population is."

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