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Frigid cold brings real danger to poor, homeless

The 43-year-old lady sat outside a Rock Hill assistance agency on Tuesday. She was home, because her house is an old Oldsmobile, a sheet of plastic covering a missing a window.

She wore a battered coat and hooded sweatshirt. Nobody had to tell her she would need both over the next three nights, when temperatures are expected to drop well below freezing. Newscasters call it an “arctic blast.” People like her call the cold names that can’t be used in a newspaper.

“Lost my job; it was seasonal for the holidays,” she said. “I can’t go home, because I was a domestic violence victim. He beat me. Got nowhere else to stay but here. It was about 26 degrees this morning.”

She spread her arms, pointing around the car’s interior and toward the plastic sheet where the window should be.

“All that’s between me and 10 degrees,” she said, and then she began to cry.

That woman and hundreds of other homeless people face a few days of what could be threatening cold. Rock Hill’s homeless shelters and warming centers are open and have seen packed houses. York County has fewer than 100 beds for a homeless population at least three times that.

“This is not seasonal cold; this is cold that can be harmful,” said Rebecca Melton, president of the United Way of York County, which assists several area charities and nonprofit shelters, including Rock Hill’s largest warming center at Bethel United Methodist Church. The warming center has extended its hours, staying open from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.

State emergency management officials sent out a warning this week advising people to stay out of the bitter cold unless necessary.

But for hundreds who have no home, frigid temperatures can be life-threatening.

Area homeless advocates spent much of Tuesday going to homeless encampments from near the state line through southern Rock Hill, making sure people who normally brave the weather opt for shelter. Volunteers with Christians Feed the Hungry Ministries dropped off wood for fires and kerosene for space heaters and helped people staying in cars in grocery store and department store parking lots.

“This is dangerous cold,” said the Rev. Ronal King, founder of Christians Feed the Hungry. “There are people who have a place to live but are so far behind they don’t have money for fuel oil or kerosene, or they had the power cut off.

“What we need people to do these next few days, when it is so cold, is not look past these homeless people they might try not to see most days. Look left, look right, and if you see somebody out there, help them.”

At Renew Our Community, a nonprofit organization that serves many of York County’s homeless and chronically broke people during the daytime with vocational and social services, the waiting area already was jammed Tuesday with people who have no other place to go during the day when shelters are closed.

The ROC extended its hours during this week’s cold snap, opening an hour earlier and staying open an hour later. Volunteers and staffers have extra blankets and other items to help people to try to stave off the cold. Churches have offered the use of vans to move homeless people from the warming center to ROC.

“We know that it will be extremely cold for several days,” ROC staffer Jean Dickenson said, “and we are doing all we can to prepare for it.”

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