Two Catholic Charities workers were searching Flagstaff’s Southside for vulnerable homeless people early one morning in mid-December when they came upon something they never wanted to see.
Inside a tunnel in the 100 block of West Phoenix Avenue was the body of a man bundled up in a sleeping bag. He appeared to have frozen to death.
Deaths like this one happen every winter in Flagstaff as overnight temperatures drop into the single digits. But in 2015, the number of suspected exposure deaths among the local homeless population dropped significantly.
During its annual Longest Night memorial service on Dec. 21, 2014 Flagstaff Shelter Services remembered eight homeless people who died due to exposure that year.
This December, the ceremony included only two, including the man discovered by the Catholic Charities workers a couple weeks ago.
A fledgling overflow program run by Flagstaff Shelter Services appears to be at least partially responsible for the drop.
During the winter of 2012, the shelter reported having to turn people away on “Code Blue” nights when the temperatures dropped below 20 degrees. That’s why, in early December 2013, a group of citizens formed a nonprofit called The Refuge, which enlisted a few local churches to take in homeless men and women when the shelter was full on the coldest nights of the year. The program has continued to grow.
“That essentially extended our capacity in partner churches around the eight coldest weeks of winter last year starting in December,” said Ross Altenbaugh, executive director of Flagstaff Shelter Services. “We didn’t have any exposure deaths from Dec. 1 to Feb. 1 last year.”
In 2015, Flagstaff Shelter Services took over the initiative and turned it into a program called The Sanctuary. More than a dozen local religious congregations and social service agencies are now involved. The increased participation allowed the shelter to provide overflow space in mid-November – weeks earlier than in 2014. The program is expected to run into March.
“The truth is, we really feel like this additional shelter space is contributing to the decrease in exposure deaths,” Altenbaugh said.
The workers at the Catholic Charities Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness – or PATH program – have noticed a difference, too.
Jonathan Duncan, an outreach support specialist for PATH, was one of the workers who found the homeless man dead in December. Every night when there is a lot of snow or ice or the temperatures are dangerously cold, he and fellow PATH worker Richard Brust work from 10 p.m to 5 or 6 a.m. searching Flagstaff’s shopping center storefronts, bridges and tunnels for people who are sleeping outside to either get them to the shelter or put them up in a motel. The Catholic Charities workers have been going out a lot more this year than last because there have been more cold, snowy nights.
“This year, in particular, we’re finding a lot less people outside,” Duncan said. “I’m sure that has to do with the overflow services. Of course, part of it could be that we just can’t find them and they are hiding out in the woods.”
The decrease in deaths is especially significant because of the high demand for emergency shelter. The alcohol and drug-free, faith-based Sunshine Rescue Mission Inc., for instance, can house 45 men upstairs and about 20 more in its downstairs overflow space at The Mission in the Southside, plus at least 65 women and children at Hope Cottage. Usually, there are some spaces available in the winter, but not this year.
“We’ve been really full,” said Sunshine Rescue Mission Executive Director Stephanie Boardman. “Normally, between October and March, people that are homeless in our community try to reconnect at Christmas and the holidays, so usually we have less (demand). This is the first year where I can say we’ve been completely full all during the holidays.”
If someone needs a bed but the person is inebriated or the Sunshine Rescue Mission locations are full, staff coordinates with Flagstaff Shelter Services to find that person a warm place to stay for the night.
“We are a barebones operation (at Flagstaff Shelter Services),” Altenbaugh said. “We provide the most basic resources to people with the lowest barrier to access them. People can access our services regardless of their faith, sobriety or mental illness, so we really are getting folks that are the most likely to die on our streets tonight.”
Flagstaff Police Department also helps by picking up homeless people who are in danger of freezing.
“We try to get them with family here if they have it,” said FPD Deputy Chief Dan Musselman. “If not, we look to get them into the homeless shelters or the Alcohol Stabilization Unit (at the Guidance Center).”
FPD also gives them winter coats donated by the Salvation Army.
This winter, all 86 beds at the Flagstaff Shelter Services have been full every night, but, thanks to the churches participating in the Sanctuary program, the shelter has not had to turn anyone away because they have been able to house an additional 25 to 30 people a night in the churches.
“The good news is that the resources are there if people can get to them and know about them,” Altenbaugh said. “We really feel like, between us and the other amazing agencies, we really feel like we’re able to meet the need that exists from a capacity perspective. It’s a little bit unlimited. If we needed 50 spots, we would have them.”
This week, it is Hope Community Church’s turn to provide overflow space to the shelter.
“Our mission is to love God and love others, so it fits,” said Pastor Dave Reynolds. “We don’t want to see people out in the cold.”
Hope Community Church also participated in the Refuge program in 2014. It went so well that the congregation decided to come back for another year.
“The guys (who stayed at the church) were great,” Reynolds said. “They pretty much have it all down to a routine. They police themselves, so it was not a hard thing to do. They’re truly grateful to have a break from the shelter. (The shelter sends) guys they’ve already established a rapport with that they know will do well in the setting over here.”
Reynolds said his church would not have the resources to house homeless people on its own, but with Flagstaff Shelter Services making the placements, feeding its clients dinner and taking care of the logistics, including bedding, transportation and liability insurance, his congregation is able to help the people in Flagstaff who need it most. All he needs is volunteers to cook breakfast for the homeless guests in the mornings.
“The shelter has everything else,” he said. “They have it all covered. They meet a crucial need in our community. We’re all in it together and we’re just trying to do our part.”
Unlike in the past, Duncan said, the biggest challenge Catholic Charities faces in trying to prevent exposure deaths is not a lack of shelter space but the reluctance of some homeless people to use it. When someone refuses to come with them, the Catholic Charities workers leave their card with contact information, as well as donated blankets, sleeping bags, gloves, beanies and anything else they have on hand that could help that person stay warm.
“Having things like blankets, flashlights, heavy jackets and things like that to offer people to really make sure that they’re getting the best care they can when they don’t want to come with us is definitely helpful,” Duncan said.
Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, Flagstaff Shelter Services and Sunshine Rescue Mission all need volunteers and donations to keep their operations afloat. But Boardman said even community members who are not affiliated with any of those organizations can help save lives this winter.
“Offer them blankets,” she said. “Ask if they need help or ask, ‘Can I take you to a shelter?’ If they say no, you need to call the police or, if you can do it, you want to put them up in a hotel. If you’re serious about really helping somebody in that situation and it’s freezing out there, you’ll go that extra mile to save them.”