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Homeless Face Record-Breaking Cold In Parts Of The Nation


It is brutally cold across much of the country. And now at least eight deaths have been linked to the record-breaking temperatures. It was around -27 degrees in Minneapolis - so cold that a train track actually cracked. In Detroit, at least two dozen water mains froze. In Chicago, temperatures dropped to around -23 degrees, making it colder than Alert, Canada, one of the northernmost inhabited places in the world. And in southern Wisconsin, windchills this morning expected to be in the -40s. That includes Milwaukee, where windchills are -42 degrees. Debra Gonzalez has been spending her nights this week driving through that city. She's the founder of Feeding His Flock Street Ministry. And she's looking for those in need of help.

Debra, good morning.

DEBRA GONZALEZ: Good morning.

MARTIN: You've been going out every night this week. You were out last night, I understand, for a few hours. Did you see many people out in the elements?

GONZALEZ: We actually did not, luckily. There's many of us groups out here picking up people. And I think a lot of them stayed in the warming shelters that we had seen Tuesday night. Some of our shelters were able to stay open during the day yesterday. So - and, actually, yesterday, I was out from 8 in the morning until 8 in the evening, having been previously out Tuesday night until Wednesday morning - 12:30.





MARTIN: Luckily, the message is getting through to people that there are these places where they can come and get shelter and get warm. But earlier in the week, when people weren't taking this as seriously, perhaps, or didn't know where to go, I imagine the story was different. Can you tell us...


MARTIN: ...Just about who you saw, some of the more dire circumstances?

GONZALEZ: Well, we came across a gentleman who was parking his car. And it was frozen solid on the inside. The frost was about two inches thick on the inside of his car.


GONZALEZ: The car - the doors were hard to open. He had no power. He had no gas left because he had used it all trying to stay warm in there. So we called a tow truck and got him a tow truck over there and got him to a gas station, defrosted him and convinced him to go inside.

MARTIN: Wow. I mean...


MARTIN: Did he have a cell phone? I mean, if you hadn't come...

GONZALEZ: It was dead.

MARTIN: ...Upon him, what would have happened?

GONZALEZ: He probably would've, unfortunately, froze to death on Wednesday night.

MARTIN: Wow. So he was living in his car.

GONZALEZ: He spends nights in his car or nights in his hotel because he's homeless, yes.


GONZALEZ: When he has money, he goes to hotels. And when he doesn't, he sleeps in his car, no matter if it's 36 degrees below zero or not.

MARTIN: Right. Do people sometimes tell you no? Are they reticent to come with you for whatever reason?

GONZALEZ: They do. I actually - he said no. But just prior to him, I had got a phone call from the Journal Sentinel here in Milwaukee. And they said there was a gentleman at such and such place. So I went, and I finally got him into the car. But he wanted to stop and get a bus pass. And as I turned around - I stopped at a stop sign. I turned around, and he was bailing out of the car. And I was like, where are you going? And he's like, oh, I got to get a bus pass. I got to get a bus pass. I'm like, no, honey. I'm driving you. You can stay in the warm car. I'll get you a bus pass.

MARTIN: So he just didn't...

GONZALEZ: He got...

MARTIN: ...Believe that...

GONZALEZ: He got out of the car.

MARTIN: ...You were there to help?

GONZALEZ: Yeah. He got out of the car and started walking the other way. And, you know, we tracked him for a good 20 minutes. And finally, I called our friends over at the Milwaukee County outreach team and said, you know, he just will not come in. You guys really got to check on him tonight. I believe they called the police to have them go check on him because he would not come with us. You know, a lot of mental illness keeps them out because they can't be in a confined area.

MARTIN: Yeah. Are you going back out tonight or today?


MARTIN: You got to sleep sometime, I imagine.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) I slept actually in till - from 8:30 last night until 4 o'clock this morning. I do need to check on a couple people this morning before I, actually, go to my real job. But yeah, the temperature right now is -22. So the shelters are going to stay open today until, like, noon. Some of them will stay open till 4. And then they will close again around 7 p.m. tonight - or tomorrow night.

MARTIN: OK. Well, hopefully, people are taking advantage of that. Debra Gonzalez...


MARTIN: ...Founder of Feeding His Flock Street Ministry in West Allis, Wis. Thanks so much for talking with us, Debra.

GONZALEZ: You're welcome. Have a great day.

MARTIN: You too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.