Wintry Wednesday

As a wintry mix of rain and sleet was falling, Kathy Drake, a volunteer at the city of Walla Walla’s sleep center, stands amid the deserted shelters this morning that occupants must leave by 9 a.m.

March has come in like a lion, bringing ice, snow and record-setting cold.

On top of the continued ice and snow, the past two nights have delivered record cold, according to the National Weather Service.

Monday night’s low of 11 degrees tied the record set on March 4, 1989, and Tuesday night’s low of 7 degrees beat the previous record of 10 degrees set on March 5, 1955.

Things are supposed to warm up over the next few days, however.

The low tonight is expected to be about 25 degrees, dropping to the low 20s through Saturday. Daytime highs are expected to reach about 38 degrees Thursday, dropping to the mid-30s through Saturday.

First responders have seen an increase in people suffering from the cold weather, particularly those who are homeless. Walla Walla Fire Department Lt. Paramedic Erik Swanson said he and his co-workers have responded to more calls due to the wintry conditions, including people falling on the icy walkways, getting hypothermia and frostbite. He said some without shelter had died, but he didn’t have exact numbers.

“I just know there’s been an increase,” he said. “It makes you feel fortunate to have a place to live.”

The Walla Walla County Coroner’s Office has had no cases of people dying from exposure this year, but people with extreme conditions might be flown to other hospitals outside of the county, said Alyssa Wells, administrative assistant at the Coroner’s Office.

Winter is an especially challenging time for those experiencing homelessness. Alliance for the Homeless Chair Chuck Hindman said fewer people are staying in the city’s sleep center as some resort to couch surfing or staying in a warming center such as that at New Beginnings Chapel on West Main Street.

The sleep center’s huts are insulated but not heated. Hindman said volunteers set up an 8-by-9-foot canopy with a propane heater where a handful of people can warm up for a bit before going to their huts for the night.

The site where the sleep center plans to relocate this spring will feature portable classroom buildings the city bought from Milton-Freewater Unified School District. Hindman said that will provide about 1,000 square feet of space, allowing more people at a time to warm up before heading to the huts.

“We’re sure looking forward to having better facilities,” he said.

Hindman said more people get sick during the winter months, and spending all day outside is exhausting.

“It’s really tough being homeless in the cold weather,” Hindman said.

According to an article in the Union-Bulletin published last Thursday, the New Beginnings Chapel has taken in about a dozen people over the past few weeks. Hindman said at least 30 people have been sheltering at the sleep center at night.

Union-Bulletin reporters Andy Porter, Forrest Holt and Emily Thornton contributed to this story.

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