Freezing winter tests homeless shelters, those on streets

Out in the elements

When local shelters ran out of room this winter, James Simmons found the closest bridge and curled up underneath a piece of cardboard.

It was still light outside as Simmons, an Army veteran who hopes soon to get an apartment with help from the Department of Veterans Affairs, waited outside the Salvation Army on Greene Street this week, trying to get in so he wouldn't have to return to the bridge.

With temperatures warming across the area, it's easy to forget how hard a winter can be on the city's homeless population. It's not something Simmons will forget, though. He suffers from bronchitis, and the nights outside "made it so much worse," he said.

A life on the street comes with a long list of hardships, and some are exacerbated by the change in seasons, experts said.

Across Georgia, 52 homeless men and women died because of the weather in 2008, according to Kathryn Preston, the executive director of the Georgia Coalition to End Homelessness.

Numbers for 2009 have yet to be tallied, but the record low temperatures that descended on the South do not bode well for the count.

Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten said the changing weather often brings a spike in the number of homeless deaths.

Tuten said he can't recall any homeless deaths because of the weather this winter, and his office does not keep records on them. But there have been six unclaimed bodies since January, often -- but not always -- an indication of homelessness.

Officials from local shelters said they extended their hours and capacity during winter -- the fifth-coldest in Augusta history -- so no one would be left out in the cold. Still, many had no choice. Shelters filled up quickly when the mercury dipped, as happened often.

"We were actually over 100 percent capacity more this year than we've ever had before," said Rebecca Wallace, the Salvation Army's development director.

Its shelter on Greene Street operated a "white-flag" policy this year, in which workers would raise a flag whenever the temperature dipped very low to signal that they had room for more people, Wallace said.

It was the same at Garden City Rescue Mission on Fenwick Street.

Lavond Reynolds, the men's director for the mission, said if the weather dipped below 35 degrees they would allow more people inside. This meant adjusting their rules, such as allowing drunken men into the shelter but separating them from the rest of the people, to squeeze everyone inside.

He said he dreaded the thought of someone stuck outside in the cold.

"That would just be the worst thing: to know that somebody died because of the elements -- because they could have had shelter with us," Reynolds said.

Now with milder weather on the way, officials said they expect a brief reprieve in the number of needy until the heat of summer arrives.

But warmer weather is no consolation for those living on the streets.

Will Quarterman, who is homeless despite having a part-time job, said the heat brings a whole new set of day-to-day challenges. Quarterman would often stay up at night during the winter to keep his blood moving and ward off frostbite, but now he worries about the bugs, snakes and dogs.

"It's not easy," he said. "I don't like lying on the ground. I don't like mosquitoes."

Augusta shelters

WHAT: The Salvation Army

WHERE: 1384 Greene St.

SERVES: Men, women, children

CONTACT: (706) 826-7933

WHAT: Interfaith Hospitality Network of Augusta

WHERE: 2177 Central Ave.

SERVES: Families with children

CONTACT: (706) 364-4462

WHAT: Garden City Rescue Mission

WHERE: 828 Fenwick St.

SERVES: Men, women with children

CONTACT: (706) 724-6960

WHAT: Mercy Ministries

WHERE: 1739 Fenwick St.

SERVES: Homeless and poor people at its day shelter, open 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

CONTACT: (706) 737-0242

WHAT: Augusta Rescue Mission

WHERE: 526 Walker St.

SERVES: Men

CONTACT: (706) 722-2058

WHAT: Hope House

WHERE: 2205 Highland Ave.

SERVES: Women with substance-abuse problems

CONTACT: (706) 737-9879