Monday, February 18, 2019

In the Wake of #PolarVortex2019

The Polar Vortex came and went (again; and may come again) in Minnesota! Right on the heels of the government shutdown, school districts across the state and the region were cancelling, in lieu of stupid cold temperatures (that's a scientific measurement, by the way). It's always strange to me that the state itself won't go ahead and call off school when it's colder here than on parts of the surface of Mars, but obviously there are smarter people than me making those decisions...

This from the National Weather Service. And this wasn't
even as cold as it got...
All of the advice from media and the authorities was that we should avoid going out as much as possible. In temperatures like what we had, hypothermia can start in less than five minutes. And I'm not scoffing at that; I've had enough training and done enough winter adventuring to know that you need to prepare to go out, or all kinds of suffering and gnashing of teeth will ensue. But that being said, I know people who do scoff, saying things about when I was your age and mocking those who feel more than chilled at stupid cold temperatures (again, scientific assessment).

I'm of two minds when it gets so cold; I want to stay inside, stay warm. And I want everyone else to do the same. Meanwhile, I also see all the snow and think of how much fun it could be. Though there wasn't much snow during  the Polar Vortex, most of that came afterward. But in regard to wanting people to stay inside, I react with something resembling anger when I see people out walking from place to place when the air can literally freeze your bodily tissues solid. Seems stupid to me. But on the other hand, I feel like there's this you are your brother's keeper thing stirring in me; I have a warm house. How many people don't have that?

So I recently had an overnight shift working on the ambulance. It used to bug me when I would work during the "daytime," but I would go to work in the dark and then drive home in the dark again, knowing that there had been daylight while I was inside. But it's even stranger to go to work in the dark and leave in the dark, while driving around town and seeing for myself that there wasn't any daylight while I was working my shift.

Anyway, our first call of the night took us to a homeless shelter in St. Paul. I've been by this place before, I've seen the line each afternoon/evening, when people line up, looking for a bed to stay in for the night. Even when it gets chilly, that line is outside. But with the frostbiting temperatures, the line was inside. The shelter opened up extra room, cramming people into every corner, just trying to get people out of the cold. We were there for an individual who was off her meds and needed far more help than what the shelter staff could offer. But as we walked in to pick up this individual, I was still struck by how few people were there. I mean, I've read the articles, I've seen the charity asks and the statistics about homelessness in the Twin Cities. Even if every homeless shelter was filled to capacity (and then a little, because this is charity work after all), there must still be more people who need a place to stay.

And it makes me angry. Because I also see the people still out panhandling when the snow is up over their ankles and the wind is cutting straight through that jacket that was never designed to worn under the freezing point. People who have to walk from place to place, not because they want to, but because they can't even afford the cost of public transit.

What am I supposed to do in cases like this?

No, really, what am I supposed to do? This isn't a rhetorical question. I am processing through my emotional responses. I want to help them somehow.

So what do I do? Do I pick people up and take them to the nearest shelter? To the hospital? Do I take them home with me? I have a warm house with a spare bedroom; maybe Amanda and I should open our house and give that panhandler the second bedroom. Jesus would probably agree with me on that one.

But then what do I do the next time that I see a panhandler? And the next one after that? Do I tell that first person that I brought home that now they need to share my spare bedroom with two other people?

That's me. In my ambulance at work.
Trying to figure out what to do with people...
What about when I'm at work? For work I now drive around in a (mostly) warm truck that has a place to lay down in the back. It's a stated fact that I am not to stop for somebody else if I already have a patient in the back, but what about when I don't? I mean, that night when it was stupid cold, I definitely think that I could have justified someone being in a state of emergency if they were panhandling out in the cold. As it turns out, I did not see anyone that night (so that's probably a good thing), but what if I had? What am I to do when I see someone in such a state like that and I have the resources at my ready disposal?

Part of me has to wonder at the possibility of me, a new EMT, who starts bringing street people into the emergency department when it's cold. I'm pretty sure that some ED supervisor would probably call the EMS supervisor and tell them that their man needs to stop bringing these people in. And then I might lose my job and lose the ready access to those life saving supplies in the first place!

You can see that I've thought about this a lot, dear reader, and I don't think I'm anywhere close to a solution...

My mother, in all her wisdom, pointed out that there may be programs like what I was talking about. Groups of public servants or other volunteers who drive around in the dead of winter and bring panhandlers and street people to shelters so that they don't get dead in the winter. Most of the time these type of services depend on a director who is sympathetic to the cause. And I don't know where my supervisors stand on that issue. Not yet at least.

At the same time, my mother also quoted Jesus at me and said "you will have the poor with you always." And she didn't mean it dismissively. Really, I think she was at the same place as me when I ask whether I should take panhandlers into my home; we only have so many resources. So how do we use those resources most effectively, knowing that Jesus wants us to help people, and at the same time knowing that we are trying to help people, in all their faults, foibles, virtues and vices.

Maybe the answer is to volunteer with a group of people already doing this work. Maybe the answer is to give money to that group. Maybe the answer is to drive around in your car with gift cards for gas and groceries (that would really be taking it to the streets, wouldn't it dear reader?)

To pull back the curtain, you know that I'm a wandering more than a little bit with this post. It's not as tight and directed as I usually like with my blog. But nonetheless, this is me, asking questions and hoping for responses.

Hit me with what you've got in the comments.


  1. Maybe you gather some other people and you all could create a few care packs? Everyone could buy some backpacks and fill the packs with extra clothing, food, and water, and maybe things for brushing teeth, deodorant, sanitary wipes, anything for hair maybe too? I don't know if it sounds realistic, but that is my idea.

    1. Also, I just thought about your idea of opening your spare bedroom up, I think that sounds like a good idea, you can invite one or two to share your spare bedroom, and help them find a job and help them to get off on their feet, and once they are out, invite another two and help them get a job and to get out on their own as well and continue for as long as you would like. Just another thought, again not sure if it is a realistic idea, but there it is.

    2. I like the care pack idea. It’s a communal initiative, and it’s a very concrete way to provide care for others. But with something like that, I always worry whether it’s a useful redundancy; There are shelters that do the same thing. I can only provide so many backpacks. Do my dozen or so backpacks have enough of an impact to justify doing that, rather than giving the money to the shelter that does the same?
      Providing a room to get someone on their feet is something I have thought about a lot. But it’s a big conversation to have with my wife...
      P.S. Who are you? You’re labeled as anonymous. Are you able to message me and say who you are?

  2. I can certainly feel the conflict in what to do in those types of situations. In life threatening cold conditions, driving someone to a shelter might be necessary as an immediayi response.But I tend to think - in general - the most useful thing is to find groups/organizations already providing necessities, especially shelter, and supporting them either monetarily or with volunteer hours. If a group is already established, they would have the infrustructure to provide more housing quicker, cheaper, and more efficiently than a newcomer jumping into the game.
    Of course, giving money can seem impersonal, but there might be more concrete ways to support; volunteering, advertising, offeeing to help write grant proposals etc.