Anchorage saw temperatures dip below zero over the pre-Thanksgiving weekend, and for the city’s hundreds of unsheltered residents, that poses a risk to both life and limb.
Ahead of the cold snap, people living outside were preparing for an extended chill, as were Anchorage residents trying to help them.
Lisa Munson and her Bible study group have been visiting Davis Park in East Anchorage regularly, trying to build relationships to help people living unsheltered nearby. On Thursday, Munson stopped by on her own.
“You want the gray ones?” she asked a young man named Terry Rogers. “They’re Keens.”
She was trying to convince Rogers to take a pair of boots, while he was out walking his dog Yoyo. It was windy, and the ground was covered in snow and ice. He was wearing open-heeled, slip-on clogs.
Rogers looked over two pairs of footwear but was reluctant to take the gift.
“If you want the brown ones, take the brown ones,” Munson said. “They’re work boots I had, and you can have them.”
Rogers eventually relented and thanked her. Munson encouraged him to come back when she came back with her group.
“We’ll see you on Sunday at 2, OK?” she said.
Their conversation was disjointed. Munson was patient and encouraging. Rogers was clear one moment, and then sharing non sequiturs about a French rapper or getting out of jail recently.
“We’re in Mountain View, right?” Rogers asked.
“We’re in Davis Park, sweetheart. OK?” Munson said. “And we’ll bring some socks, and we’ll bring more clothes, and a warm meal and beautiful, beautiful people who just want to love on you.”
“Love!” Rogers said.
“Love,” Munson said.
A few minutes later, Rogers was bent over, vomiting into a snow berm. He said he was dopesick. After a few heaves, he said he was good, but his teeth started chattering.
And it’s forecast to be much colder this weekend. Munson was one of many trying to help people living outdoors. Both the city’s cold weather emergency shelter system and the year-round shelter system are effectively maxed out.
In the emergency department at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, staff see cold-related injuries throughout the winter, like blistered fingers and toes, and mild hypothermia, said Dr. Daniel Safranek, the department’s medical director.
“Definitely, like, we’ll see one or two of those a week, where someone might have some less severe cold injury,” he said. “Something they’re not going to lose digits over, but definitely needs care, and needs to be in a warm place.”
He also sees severe, life threatening cases of hypothermia.
“And that’s a high risk for having a cardiac arrest,” Safranak said. “The heart doesn’t like to be really cold.”
And, of course, those are the ones who make it to the hospital.
According to tracking by the Anchorage Daily News, a record number of people that were are likely homeless have died outdoors in the city this year. The most common causes of death for unsheltered people in Anchorage are drug overdose, cardiac arrest and hypothermia.
Gil Jacko has lived outside for years and has his own substance use issues. Until recently, he was living at a campsite near the Alaska Railroad depot in downtown Anchorage. On a wet, snowy day, he shared a few tips he uses for to keep his toes intact.
“I’m soaked all the way up to my knees, but I’ve got the mylar,” he said, showing how he had sheets of emergency blanket against his skin, inside his shoes.
The crinkly, shiny material poked out of the tops of the sneakers he was wearing.
“When you want to keep them dry and warm, you use cardboard. It’s like, cardboard in there, like a insole. And then you put the mylar, which holds your heat if you’re still wet,” Jacko said. “It took me years to figure that one out, but, you know, the older you get, the better you better be off, or you will lose your limbs, man.”
On Gambell Street, there is a small office with block letters posted in the window, announcing a 24-hour warming space opening soon. On Thursday, four women were working inside at desks, as some men lounged on two big couches watching TV.
“Well, it’s kind of an unofficial warming space right now,” said Stephanie Williams, founder of this nonprofit, Graceful Touch Transitional Services. “Because three of them out there can’t get into the shelter ’cause it’s full, and are planning on going back to their tents tonight. So if they come here between 9 and 5, OK, well, that’s eight hours of warmth, that’s what I can do.”
The main mission of her organization is intensive case management for needy people, she said.
The couches will be hauled away and 50 chairs brought in on Saturday, Williams said. Then, on Tuesday night, the Anchorage Assembly is expected to approve a contract for her nonprofit to run a round-the-clock warming area in the office space through April.
In the meantime, before she can officially open, she’s worried about the sub-zero temperatures in the forecast and the people sleeping outside.
“Because do you see the degrees?” she said. “It’s going down. I want to open up Saturday, but I don’t know if I can. I don’t know if I can, you know, if I have the permission.”