When weather conditions turn deadly, Dallas’ OurCalling ministry, built to help those experiencing homelessness, goes into overdrive. Their near daily search and rescue efforts seek out the unsheltered, offering to take them to a warm, safe place, with food and services. Some people take them up on the offer, some don’t.
OurCalling reaches out to those on the streets nearly every day. The nonprofit’s Street Outreach Manager,David Coe, says under these frigid conditions, getting those still out there is harder than ever.
“The low-hanging fruit comes quickly,” explains Coe. “The folks that we’re seeing at this point are the guys that are what we call anchors. They’re anchored in. They don’t want to leave their stuff behind.”
Mixed feelings about accepting help
That describes Larry Branch’s situation. The search and rescue team of Kelly Crawford and John Little found him Thursday under a pale blue puffy blanket, sitting on a DART bus stop bench on Maple Avenue.
When the pair offered him a ride to the Fair Park shelter, Branch said yes. Then he said there was alcohol in his bag, which is not allowed in the shelter. “You got to drink it now,” Little and Crawford told him.
Branch also explained that he had “a bike and other stuff” in storage that he needed to lock up. John Little asked if he needed a ride over to storage first.
Branch explained that he also had some weed, which is not allowed in the shelter.
“Say, look, I don’t mean to disrespect you, man. I feel like I’m disrespecting you. But I do want to smoke this stuff up I got,” Branch said. “And if y’all can come back and get me in about 30 minutes, I’ll be OK.”
So the OurCalling team left.
Little says this is typical. Someone sounds willing to go, then decides against it. “[They say] I’m good. I don’t need it. But a month or two later,” he explained, “we’ll be back out there, taking these people to the hospital because they got frostbite on their toes, fingers … losing feet, losing hands. We saw too much of that last year and don’t really care to see it again.”
Search and rescue rolls on
Under the roofed shed at Maria Luna Park Thursday were five bundles of blankets, a person under each. Civilian users of OurCalling’s cell phone app called in the makeshift encampment the day before. When the rescue effort arrived, every person said they were fine.
“We’re good. And warm.” It was 23 degrees at the time.
Thirty minutes later, as Larry Branch requested, the two revisited the 53-year-old still on the DART bench under his blanket.
He’s not ready. “Not yet,” said Branch. “But I’m going though. But I am going. Check on me in 30 minutes. Just being honest, man.”
Thursday’s OurCalling search and rescue team did find one taker who got in the vehicle.
Jason Neal was shivering. Trying to keep warm, he had draped a flexible, plastic mat around his shoulders like a cape.
Little stopped the van.
“You’re going to freeze man,” he said and got out to open the back door.
Neal took a seat. The ends of his fingers on both hands weren’t there. There were white and bloody nubs where the joints had been.
“What happened to your fingers?” Little asked. “They fell off last year during the freeze,” Neal answered.
Twenty minutes after picking up Neal, the van reached the cold-weather shelter at Fair Park’s Automobile building. By Thursday afternoon, about 600 people were sheltering inside. The shelter made space for a total of 1,000. Neal, who hadn’t stopped shivering, refused to get out of the van.
“Take me back to where you got me,” he said.
Little said he’d heard of this happening but never encountered it. “PTSD or something. He was shaking. He wouldn’t get out of the van.”
The Fair Park shelter, initially scheduled to stay open until Monday, may now stay open until Tuesday, given predictions of continued freezing temperatures.
Got a tip? Email Reporter Bill Zeeble at email@example.com . You can follow him on Twitter @bzeeble.