'Help people stay alive this winter': Des Moines police, Joppa look to get homeless off streets amid historic cold
As a deadly cold overtakes much of the Midwest, some in Des Moines are keeping the most vulnerable in mind.
Seven people have died in weather-related incidents around the country this week, including a University of Iowa student. But police and others in the state's capital are trying to prevent any tragedies here as temperatures are projected to fall to between minus-16 and minus-6 degrees Wednesday evening until sunrise Thursday morning.
Pella Rugged Outdoor Clothing pulled up to the Primary Health Care at Mercy, located at 250 Laurel St. in downtown Des Moines, with a truckload of 400 winter coats for the metro's homeless. Transportation to warming centers via free Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority bus rides is available through Thursday. Des Moines' two largest homeless shelters, Bethel Mission and Central Iowa Shelter and Services, have expanded capacity.
Joppa is continuing its practice of providing heaters, propane and winter gear to those in need. The organization, which serves about 200 in central Iowa per week, usually makes weekend visits to campsites to drop off the supplies. But with temperatures topping out in the single digits or lower since Monday, Joppa is doing more.
"This week, we've been going out pretty much every day and checking on people, replenishing propane — trying to get people, though, to go into shelters," said Joppa cofounder and chairman Joe Stevens. Even with all the resources the organization provides, Stevens said the organization aims to get as many people into metro shelters as possible.
Sometimes, Stevens said, it's tough to convince some of the homeless to leave the streets. Des Moines police have talked about this, too. Sgt. Paul Parizek, the department's spokesman, has said those without regular shelter are "extremely resourceful and independent."
Some would rather be left alone in the cold than discard what they own to head to a potentially crowded shelter.
"People are really reluctant to leave their stuff behind for, say, a single night or two nights when a cold snap hits," Stevens said. "Because ... there's a lot more theft and a lot more chaos right now then there's ever been (among the homeless community) since we've been doing this for 11 years."
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Stevens said his teams counted between 100 and 120 unsheltered individuals in Des Moines over the weekend. Another 75 recently homeless folks are in "aftercare," or have some form of housing besides a shelter.
Parizek said his officers try to be respectful of a person's preference, but if someone is in danger, the police will do what they think is best, although the police have few options for handling the reluctant.
"We only arrest people who we have probable cause to believe they committed a crime," Parizek said Tuesday night. "If a person presents a legit danger to themselves or others, we can hold them for transport to a hospital to be evaluated — not an arrest, but something they may not want to do."
Parizek gave one example of a nude man who was caught in a snow drift last week. The man didn't want to go to the hospital, but police took him anyway.
If the public sees a person without shelter talking to police, Parizek said they're not necessarily talking about criminal activity.
"The most likely scenario is we would give him a ride to shelter," Parizek said, "... (or) we would go the mental/medical evaluation route. If a person is sitting outside in temps that cold, they will likely have a medical crisis quickly."
And that's something nobody wants.
"We do everything we possibly can to help people stay alive this winter," Stevens said.
How you can help
Joppa is always looking for volunteers and donations. Stevens said the nonprofit needs people to distribute goods and volunteers can eventually join a Joppa team that regularly helps the homeless. People can also "adopt" or mentor someone who has recently experienced homelessness.
Individual adult volunteers can learn more at firstname.lastname@example.org and parents and kids should contact: JoppaKIDS@joppa.org. Donation information can be found at www.joppa.org/donate.
Those who would like to help at Central Iowa Shelter and Services can help by serving meals, running the clothing closet and food pantry, helping at the front desk and more. Interested? Contact Melissa Gradischnig at email@example.com or 515-564-5752. Those interested in donating can send in money or goods, such as bus tokens, kitchenware, can food and clothing.
More information is at www.centraliowashelter.org/.