Frigid temperatures an added hardship for homeless

This article appeared January 9, 2014 in The Gardner News. 

Nyoka Norine Blanchard, 27, told officials she was freezing to death when she called Our Father’s House at about 6 p.m. on Tuesday night asking for help.

The temperature had dropped to a mere 7 degrees, and the wind made it feel even colder inside of the abandoned factory she and two other homeless individuals — Paul Henry Flagg, 35, and Donald Ketola, 38 — had holed up in on Mill Street.

Labeled with a no trespassing sign, the building was so decrepit, so unstable Gardner police would not even walk inside when they arrived at 6:15 p.m., according to Police Chief Neil Erickson. Instead, they called from the door for anyone inside the building to come out.
At first, no one came.

Officers then called Our Father’s House, a homeless shelter in Fitchburg, that works with communities as far west as Orange. Outreach coordinator Kevin MacLean, who had talked to the three individuals earlier that night, gave the officers Flagg’s cell phone number, according to police reports.

After 45 minutes of negotiations, officers coaxed the three out.

Flagg kept telling officers “he did not want to get in trouble,” Officer Joseph Wolski later indicated. Mr. Flagg asked that he and Ms. Blanchard be placed into protective custody.

If the three were sober, they would have been brought straight to Our Father’s House at 199 Summer St. in Fitchburg to spend the night, however, they were “highly intoxicated,” Chief Erickson said. Instead, the three were arrested for trespassing, and brought to the police station to be booked.

“They spent the night with us,” said the chief, “where they stayed warm and were fed.”

Mr. MacLean praised the police department’s actions the next day.

“It kept them alive,” he said. “Last night was cold and three people drinking in an abandoned building wouldn’t have woken up this morning.”

Ms. Blanchard was right to be afraid of the cold. Since the deep-freeze started on Sunday, the Associate Press has reported 21 deaths related to the cold. Several of the deaths were homeless people who either refused shelter or didn’t make it in time.

What to do with the homeless when the mercury drops to potentially fatal temperatures is a problem that plagues cities throughout the United States.

Springfield reported that many of their shelters were full Tuesday night, with some facilities offering to let people sleep on the floor. In Chicago, authorities opened up emergency shelters this past week to give people somewhere to stay warm.

In Gardner, police estimate there are about 10 homeless individuals and Mr. MacLean believes the number could be double. Officials in nearby Winchendon estimate there are 22 to 25 homeless people in town. Neither Gardner nor Winchendon have a shelter available within their limits.

In the city, it would take the mayor declaring a state of emergency to open one up for a night, according to Gardner Emergency Management Director Paul Topolski.

“The shelter would have to benefit the community at large, not a few individuals,” Mr. Topolski said.

In extreme weather, the Gardner CAC has a partnership with the United Way of North Central Massachusetts, which allows homeless individuals to come in, and fill out brief paperwork in order to obtain a hotel room for the night.

It’s a great program, according to CAC Program Director Karen Sharpe, but Tuesday night’s freeze was not quite cold enough.

“We didn’t get a fax letting us know we could use the program,” said Sharpe. There was no email either.

That leaves Gardner’s homeless population – as well as the surrounding communities – with three choices: find a place on the streets to spend the night, get arrested or find a way to get to Our Father’s House.

Of those three choices connecting people to Our Father’s – a 28-bed facility that helped 950 individuals last winter – is the best option, according to Chief Erickson.

“These arrests are not a preferred way to get the homeless off the street,” he said. “The preferred option is getting them to the shelter.”

Homeless individuals can get to Our Father’s via the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority bus, which costs $1.50 or police and Mr. MacLean have been known to give people a ride.

Mr. MacLean knows the areas homeless population well. He spends at least two days a week in Gardner going to “homeless hotspots” to see if there is anyway he can do to help, he said. He leaves a business card at almost every place he goes.

With many of the individuals he helps, including the three people arrested on Tuesday, Mr. MacLean often has a history that goes back years.

“It’s so sad,” Mr. MacLean added.  “Two of them are very able-bodied, hard workers. I got them an apartment and a job a couple years ago.”

Three weeks ago, when making his rounds, Mr. MacLean found the trio in an abandoned building. He said they were near death. Police and ambulance were called, and they were taken to Heywood hospital for treatment, according to Mr. MacLean. They then refused shelter, and returned to the streets.

Following Tuesday’s arrests, Ms. Blanchard, Mr. Flagg and Mr. Ketola were arraigned in Gardner District Court. All three were released on two months of administrative probation.

As long as it stays cold, incidents like Tuesdays will continue to happen, according to Mr. MacLean.

These incidents “are more common when it is cold,” he said.


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