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Outreach teams watch over homeless out in the cold

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Giving gloves and socks
St. Stephen's Street Outreach workers Ethna McKiernan, left, and Lam Truong provide Ernest French with socks and gloves in this 2011 file photo.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2011

On especially cold days, street outreach teams try to talk with as many homeless people as possible to make sure they have solid plans for the night. 

Next morning, the teams go back to check on those who opted not to sleep in homeless shelters, huddled up inside tents, handmade shacks and sleeping bags.

"If we don't get an answer we'll peek in their tents and be sure that they're either not there or there and at least breathing," said Renee Nyman, street outreach supervisor with St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis, noting that workers have come across frozen bodies this year and in the past.

"It's something we always fear and we hope we never see," she said. "But it's a reality that we might come across that."

St. Paul Police found the body of a 58-year-old homeless man in a homemade shack last weekend. Though the case is still under investigation, authorities said his death was not suspicious. Temperatures at the time were below zero with wind chills of minus 10.

A few homeless programs in the Twin Cities offer outreach services. They seek homeless men and women who resist shelters for various reasons and who may have trouble surviving the brutally cold winter months.

The St. Stephen's street outreach team consists of nine individuals with two members making the rounds from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

St. Stephen's doesn't send workers out late at night for safety reasons and to give the homeless some privacy.

"Because it's their home," Nyman said, "even though it's a camp, it's their home."

Nyman and her team found some people creatively cope with subzero temps. 

"Most of our campers are the most resilient people you'll ever meet," she said. "They're pretty incredible what they've been through and what they're willing to go through to make their camp a little more private or a little more safe."

According to the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, which conducts statewide homelessness research every three years, an estimated 10,000 people were homeless in Minnesota in October 2012. The study provides a count of homeless people on one day. They include those found in emergency shelters, transitional housing and through outreach and drop-in service.

While outreach teams may find older adults under bridges and in wooded areas, young people are a harder to find outside in subzero temperatures. The Wilder Foundation estimates about 4,000 youth are homeless in Minnesota any given night.

An outreach team called "Street Works," a collaborative effort between the YMCA and a number of other youth service organizations, looks for homeless people under 21 to provide food, shelter and basic needs. 

"The youth have a lot more survival-skills ingenuity than maybe some people that don't work with that population realize," said Jendeen Forberg, a Street Works member and food shelf coordinator in Minneapolis. "We'll be out for as long as we can stand it, temperature-wise, and we won't run into any young people."

Stacy Sweeney, a youth support program director for youth homelessness prevention for the YMCA, says she left home as a high school student because of conflicts with her family. She says back then outreach teams helped her find shelter.

Sweeney regularly joins youth support outreach program manager Alan Ostergaard to make sure homeless teens and young adults have hats, gloves, coats and warm places to stay. Sometimes they provide bus passes and grocery store vouchers.

Sweeney and Ostergaard visit schools during the day. Then it's off to search malls, libraries, coffee shops and 24-hour diners. 

"Where is that laundromat that's cool with people just hanging out and not just loitering but just having a safe, warm place to be?" Ostergaard said. "Or connecting with the business owners that are OK with young people ordering a cup of coffee and make that last all night."