Area shelters prepare to take in any who come
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With temperatures projected to dip near or below zero degrees through much of West Virginia Monday and Tuesday, going outside might seem like embarking on an Arctic expedition to many area residents.
But for some, staying at home isn't an option -- that's why area homeless shelters and charitable organizations opened their doors a little bit wider Monday to anyone thinking of sleeping outside.
"We're in the shelter business; we have a men's shelter and a women and children's shelter, so it's what we do every day. We've made our staff available and sensitive to every opportunity that comes in order to help people who are in need," said Rex Whiteman, president and CEO of Union Mission, a faith-based group supported entirely through community donations.
Union Mission operates two shelters in Charleston: Crossroads, the agency's men's shelter on Leon Sullivan Way, and the Brookside Family Life Center, a women's and children's shelter on South Park Road.
Crossroads has 76 beds, and Brookside has 35, but Whiteman said Monday that the shelters would take in as many people as they could, and place as many bed rolls on the floor as the space will allow.
"Anyone who walks through our door in crisis, we're there and ready to help them," he said. "We relax our guidelines during a crisis like this and say, 'if you're in need, we're here to help.' We don't want anyone to die of hypothermia or become frostbitten. We will provide food, shelter, clothing -- whatever they need."
Overnight temperatures in Charleston were forecast to reach 6 degrees below zero, said Andrew Beavers, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Charleston. If that happens, it will be the coldest Jan. 7 the weather service has ever recorded in Charleston; the city saw temperatures of minus 3 degrees in 1942.
Emergency warming centers were opened at the Salvation Army on Charleston's West Side and the South Charleston Community Center, among other places. A center that had been opened at the Hansford Center in St. Albans was closed Monday afternoon, but could be reopened if necessary, Kanawha County officials said.
Forty-eight of the state's 55 counties canceled school Monday. By late Monday evening, 53 counties had decided to tell kids not to come to school Tuesday. Davis & Elkins College in Elkins canceled classes as well.
South Charleston canceled garbage collection for Tuesday, the state Ethics Commission canceled a training session in Beckley, and Wheeling Island Racetrack and Casino canceled dog races at the track.
Alex Austin, the CEO of the Roark Sullivan Lifeway Center, said while a common misconception about homeless shelters is that they're not busy during the summer months, he anticipates that the center will have 10 to 15 extra men in the 60-bed shelter during cold spells like the one the area is currently experiencing.
"Typically, we're full year-round," he said. "What we do offer is overflow for these emergency situations. We're not going to turn anyone away and say 'you can't stay here.' We're trying to spread the word to everybody to make sure they know to come in."
According to Austin, because they're dealing with a transient population, shelter representatives often have to go out and find the people they're trying to reach. Roark Sullivan is a men's shelter, but Austin said that if women or families approach the agency, they will be directed to an appropriate shelter -- most commonly Sojourner's, the YWCA's women and children's shelter.
The only thing Austin is afraid of is a potential power outage, which would leave the agency trying to support itself with backup power sources.
As of late Monday evening, Appalachian Power reported more than 1,700 customers without power in Southern West Virginia. The Putnam County Courthouse closed Monday morning because of a power outage.
First Energy reported more than 6,300 customers without power in the northern and eastern parts of the state.
According to Tony Carrico, acting state fire marshal, many households turn to alternate heating sources during very cold days, but may not realize products such as generators and kerosene heaters can be dangerous when used improperly.
"We don't approve of those types of units placed in the home or the garage because of ventilation," he said. "Most of them, particularly generators or kerosene heaters, produce dangerous byproducts, and should not be used as alternative heating sources."
Carrico said kerosene heaters should not be used at all if it can be avoided, and generators should only be placed outside to prevent carbon monoxide inhalation.
"It's a concern to us not just because of the fire danger, but the danger from the byproducts," he said. "Historically, we see a rise in fires and fire fatalities during the winter months. Obviously, with temperatures predicted to go as low as they are, it is a concern."
Space heaters are safer than their kerosene counterparts, he said, but should still be used with caution, as they can overload a circuit, and can cause fires if left too close to combustible materials.
All flights between Yeager Airport in Charleston to and from Chicago and Washington were canceled Monday, said airport spokesman Brian Belcher.
The U.S. Postal Service encouraged customers to clear the sidewalks, stairs and mailboxes near their homes to help the agency deliver mail. According to Charleston Postmaster David Quick, curtailing mail delivery is a last resort, but if it happens, mail carriers will try to deliver the mail the next day.
Reach Lydia Nuzum at email@example.com or 304-348-5189.