By DEVIN WEEKS
It’s a bitter 18 degrees out, and dropping fast.
It’s the kind of cold that instantly numbs the fingers and stings the skin, cutting through layers of clothing after only a few minutes.
About 20 people are standing on this frigid Wednesday evening in early February, wearing backpacks and carrying duffel bags. The vapor of their warm breath rises and mingles with cigarette smoke as they wait to be let into the St. Vincent de Paul Warming Center in Post Falls.
They’re met by warming center manager Wayne Elliott, who signs them in, collects their pocket knives for the night and makes sure everyone has a hot cup of coffee and a hearty serving of chili or shepherd's pie.
The warming shelter's tenants claim their places. They begin to unroll the sleeping bags they've carried with them, or dig their beddings out of a pile of bags where they've been kept in clear sacks since the last stay.
Elliott, a kind, bearded man, walks around with a plastic tote.
"Who needs socks?" he asks, and stops by those who raise their hands. Next come the beanies, then the gloves, then the hygiene bags.
It's still chilly in the basement shelter, where everyone will sleep on the floor.
But it's better than being back outside, which is where they will be come 7 a.m.
"It does get cold. It definitely does get cold,” says Tim Morgan, 36. "If you don’t have the right gear, you’ll freeze."
Morgan, of Coeur d'Alene, has been homeless since the windstorm in November 2017. A tree crushed the motor home where he and his ex-wife and daughter lived.
"I was in the newspaper about it,” he says, grinning from behind his thick glasses, which are busted on one corner. "It landed on our house and made us homeless. Otherwise, we bounced from family to motels. All of a sudden we got stuck tenting it, but there’s hardly anywhere to place tents these days."
The warming center can accommodate up to 40 people, but it opens only when temperatures sink to 28 degrees.
"We’d like to raise it up, but St. Vincent de Paul gets no funding for the warming center. We do it all on donations," said warming center coordinator Scott Parker. "They work the numbers and that's the magic number they come up with so we can stay open as long as possible without running out of money."
As of last Wednesday, the center was open 49 nights this season and the count of bed stays was 1,165. Parker said the St. Vincent de Paul warehouse stockpiles all year to provide the homeless with two sets of sleeping bags, a pillow and a blanket that they're welcome to put their names on and keep at the warming center to reuse. The sleeping bags are cleaned by French Cleaners in Coeur d’Alene, a donation of service which saves the nonprofit a ton on laundry. He says food donations have come from Qdoba, Freedom Burrito and Philly Express.
"If it wasn't for our community, we wouldn't be able to do this," Parker said. "I tip my hat to our community. It really is a loving community that we live in."
Out in that community is where many of the homeless go after the warming center closes for the day.
Cheyenna Burtis, 18, said she usually begins her day at the 2nd Street Commons, a day center in downtown Coeur d’Alene where people can go to warm up and get information about resources in the community.
"I eat breakfast there because they help the homeless," said Burtis, who has been on the streets off and on since she was 16. "They have a church group and they give us a warm breakfast."
Burtis and others in the homeless community will spend their days at the Commons, Heritage Health, the St. Vincent H.E.L.P. Center, the library or even the post office if they have nowhere to go.
On weekday evenings, many of the homeless gather behind the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, at Father Bill's Kitchen, for a hot meal. The kitchen, located near the H.E.L.P. Center and transitional housing, also provides free showers and washers and dryers for those who need to clean up.
A bus takes a small group to the warming center on the coldest nights, but if you miss that bus or it's just a bit above 28, you're on your own. Burtis, who sometimes stays with friends or her grandmother, has slept a few winter nights on park benches.
"It’s not great, but I’ve done it," she said. "It gets very, very cold out here, especially in this weather. I’ve seen people freeze and die from it. It’s not a great thing. And knowing people are dying in Chicago because of it brings back even more memories.”
Todd Duke, 46, of Coeur d'Alene, works as a caregiver for elderly people, but he’s currently between residences. He left West Virginia and came out West to make a fresh start.
"My mom died Feb. 13, 2017, and I pretty well got tired of the memories so I ended up here on her birthday, Aug. 4, 2017," he said. "This is the longest I’ve been out on the street since I’ve been here. I just came with what I had and started making a life."
Sometimes, when he has to, he sleeps down by the lake.
"I’m saving up money to get off the streets and get back in my motel,” he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Point-in-Time Count Report, which collects data about the homeless population during the last 10 days in January, 1,256 homeless men, women and children were identified in Idaho — a 4 percent increase from 2017. The total was 228 in North Idaho (Region 1) — 138 sheltered homeless in emergency or transitional housing and 90 unsheltered who were living in cars, warming centers or temporary camps. Data for the 2019 Point-in-Time is still being collected, but is expected to be released in April.
"You got more homeless than you think," Duke said.
Elliott, who was homeless on the streets of Hollywood from age 9 to 18, has worked as the warming center manager for two years. He stays up and watches over everyone at night. He knows the names of those who return and he warmly welcomes newcomers and drop-ins.
"I guarantee them that they’ll have a safe, full stomach, night’s sleep and don’t have to worry. I’ve never had a theft. I’ve never had a fight,” he said. "I’ve had problems with people who don’t want to go by the rules, but I’ve never had an incident here."
As temperatures continue to remain in the teens and single digits, the warming center will be open. Parker and Elliott will be there to promote a safe and peaceful place for our community's homeless to seek refuge before being turned out to the world the next cold day.
Elliott helps people because he knows, from experience, that a little support and warmth can go a long way, especially in the dead of winter.
"They're humans, man," he said.
To help or donate, contact Scott Parker at 208-664-3095 ext. 306.