COLUMBIA — As temperatures fell this week, the number of occupied cots and beds at homeless shelters began to go up.
A low of minus 4 Wednesday night was the coldest Columbia has been since Jan. 23, 2003, when it was minus 5.
Eight people spent the night Wednesday at the Salvation Army Harbor House, a few more than the house would typically see in winter, director Jim Chapman said. Snow and sleet would have driven even more inside, he said.
Harbor House has 15 cots for cold-weather use. This winter, they were fully used only one day in November.
The first cold cot this season was used Nov. 7, Chapman said. Since then, the house has counted more than 700 lodgings — the number of times a bed is used. During a normal winter season, the number ranges from 300-500.
Chapman said he thinks part of the reason is the difficult economy. “The winter weather and economy go hand-in-hand,” he said.
Instead of 15-20 people eating lunch, it is not uncommon for 40-50 to sit at the table.
Other shelters are seeing similar traffic, but it may only be a fraction of the real need.
“Between the centers we have here, we’re not seeing everybody,” Chapman said. There are still those who prefer to stay outside.
“Most of those who come into a shelter don’t want to be in a shelter," he said. "They want to be out on their own, in a camp.”
If people are not staying outside, they are probably couch-surfing with friends or putting money together to stay at lower-price motels for a night or two until the weather warms up, he said.
Some have returned to the Harbor House for several nights this winter. Chapman said at least 10 people have returned for up to 20 nights throughout December and January.
If the house runs out of cots, Chapman said he has extra mattresses in the garage. The house also calls participating agencies to help house the homeless.
“We definitely see an increase during this weather,” said Sarah Froese, homeless programming supervisor for the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans' Hospital.
Veteran Affairs for Supportive Housing began in June to place veterans in homes with intensive case management. The program placed 21 people before the winter season, Froese said.
“We’re hoping we’re catching as many as we can with the new programs,” she said.
Clear winter weather may be deceiving and cause people to underestimate the need for protective clothing. Below-zero temperatures combined with wind create harsh conditions.
“Many people are running around without sufficient coats,” Chapman said. “At least two have died due to exposure to cold within the last four years.
“The community is responding in an outstanding manner,” he said.
Donated clothes and blankets have been accumulating over the last couple of days at Harbor House. Chapman said the donations will be distributed immediately.
“It will be a surprise for some who come in. We’re going to go after them and warm them up,” he said.
The weather is expected to improve Friday. Temperatures are predicted to rise into the 40s by Saturday and possibly reach 50 degrees by Wednesday.