It starts with a pins-and-needles sensation in the fingers or toes. As the cold bites deeper, numbness sets in. Then hands or feet turn white and lose all sensation as skin freezes.
Eventually the deeper tissues freeze and die, gangrene sets in and amputation is the only choice.
That already has happened at least once this winter to an injured homeless man who was trying to survive in a tent in Central Oregon's bone-chilling cold. The victim ended up losing both legs below the knee.
There would have been other stories like that - or worse - over the past month if Central Oregon individuals and organizations hadn't pitched in to make sure at least some of the region's homeless people had shelter and warmth.
On Friday, Jan. 18, the Central Oregon Homeless Leadership Council learned that temperatures were expected to drop to zero or below in the next couple of days. Immediately the council went into action.
"We had heard pretty horrific recountings of things that had happened already to people who were trying to live outside," said Corky Senecal, housing and emergency services director for Neighbor Impact and a member of the council. "There was a feeling this was a community crisis, not unlike a hurricane or flood - there were people in danger of dying."
The council contacted Nativity Lutheran Church and the First Presbyterian Church in Bend and asked them if they would help. They would. The Bend fire marshal inspected their facilities and gave permission to take in about 30 people apiece.
The council and the churches put out an appeal for firewood to take to homeless camps. The group Interfaith Action for Justice delivered the wood, and also provided transportation to the emergency church shelters for people who were turned away from the area's regular shelters for lack of room. (According to the HLC, the shelters can take in only about 15% of the region's homeless population on a given night.)
We hardly need to belabor the point that homelessness is a big and growing problem here. The Homeless Leadership Council's last annual one-day count, conducted a year ago, found 2,010 people who identified themselves as homeless. That was a 50% increase from the year before. There's no reason to think the situation is any better this year.
The 2007 count found that almost 80% of the homeless in the tri-county area were living in families. A similar percentage reported that at least one member of the family had a job. Children made up nearly 40% of the homeless population. Those statistics give the lie to the facile, and comforting, belief that most homeless people are single men who are too lazy and/or drug- or alcohol-addicted to work.
In a country as rich as the United States, it is a national disgrace that people are freezing and dying for lack of basic shelter. But that's a topic for another time. For now, here's the GLASS SLIPPER (fur-lined) for those who are rising to the challenge locally and personally.