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Milwaukee’s warming shelters see near-capacity numbers amid frigid temperatures

Temperatures have been hovering around zero for days

A homeless man sitting outside a coffee shop accepts cash from a customer on a bitter cold morning
A homeless man sitting outside a coffee shop accepts cash from a customer on a bitter cold morning, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Portland, Maine, The polar vortex that’s bringing misery to the upper Midwest is making an appearance in northern New England, where some places will struggle to reach the single digits. Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo

Officials and homeless outreach coordinators are urging people to stay inside and find shelter after three people died in Milwaukee County in recent days because of cold temperatures. 

Since Friday, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office has investigated the deaths of three men — aged 69, 64 and 40 — as probable hypothermia fatalities. One man was found dead under a bridge and  another was found on a “heating mechanism” near railroad tracks. The third man was found dead in a vehicle he was using as a temporary shelter, according to the office. 

Temperatures and wind chills have been below zero at night since Sunday, following a snow storm that hit the city on Friday. That comes as Milwaukee County has seen a recent uptick in its homeless population.

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Eric Collins-Dyke, the assistant administrator of supportive housing and homeless services for Milwaukee County, called the deaths “incredibly sad.” 

“Every single person in the outreach community who does this work wants to make sure that never happens,” Collins-Dyke said. 

Rafaeal Acevedo, a grant compliance manager with the city of Milwaukee, said the city’s six warming shelters have seen an increase in demand in the past week. Those sites have been averaging 210 people a night in the past few days. Before the storm, the same shelters averaged around 170 people a night.

“We anticipate that number will continue to stay steady or potentially increase again because the cold temps (temperatures) are not leaving anytime soon,” Acevedo said. 

Milwaukee County also operates a warming shelter on the city’s south side. Normally, the site can accommodate 40 people. On Monday and Tuesday, more than 70 people stayed at the shelter, with site administrators meeting that demand by adding more beds and staff. 

“If you show up at a warming site, you will not be turned away,” Collins-Dyke said. 

Collins-Dyke said they’ve had people come to the site who were urged to go there by the fire department, hospitals and street outreach teams.

“If we have to put cots in our hallways, we’re committed to doing that,” he said. 

Along with offering people a bed and a meal, Acevedo also said they also have staff on-site to help find individuals long-term housing. 

“We understand and we want to make sure we have the capacity and the space for someone to go in and have a warm place to stay overnight, but at the same time, our focus is to try to get them into something more permanent as we move forward,” Acevedo said. 

Madison is also seeing an increase in people going to warming centers, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Temperatures are expected to start rising on Wednesday in southeast Wisconsin, but will remain below freezing until early next week.

Milwaukee officials urge safety

“We must remain vigilant: Milwaukee County is still experiencing extremely cold temperatures through Wednesday morning,” Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said in a statement. 

Crowley said unsheltered residents can call 2-1-1 to find the nearest warming shelter. 

“Overall, I am urging community members to bundle up and limit their time outdoors so we can all stay safe and get through this,” he added.

For people who do have housing or shelter, Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipski urged them to not use gas stoves or ovens to heat their homes. Lipski called that a “very dangerous activity.”

He also called on people to use a newer space heater if possible, and to keep them away from furniture or clothing as well as away from children.

“Don’t leave them unattended,” Lipski said. 

Lipski also urged others to check on their elderly neighbors or disabled neighbors.

“Just go knock on their door or call them. Just make sure they’re doing OK,” Lipski said. 

Do you need help?

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has tips for staying warm in the winter here. You can find Milwaukee’s warming shelters here.