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For homeless, summer heat is 'miserable' and cooling centers are rare

For homeless, summer heat is 'miserable' and cooling centers are rare

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Mike Hamilton wishes he could spend his summer days cooking in a restaurant instead of baking in the sun.

"I've even been turned down by McDonald's," he said. "I can't find nothing."

Hamilton, 48, is an unemployed union brick layer. He said he has been homeless for 18 months, living outdoors in St. Charles.

"I live underneath bridges, in the trees, wherever," he said. "I just bounce around."

On weekdays, Hamilton and other homeless people gather for lunch at the Salvation Army soup kitchen, located at 2140 N. Fourth St. in St. Charles. It provides a temporary respite from the summer heat, as it did on June 23, when the temperature hit 96 degrees.

Hamilton said he tries to stay cool by spending the day in restaurants, stores and other air-conditioned public places.

"I sit at the casino and watch TV," he said. "You can hang out at the casino as long as you don't sleep there. But there really ought to be a homeless shelter in St. Charles to help out us homeless men."

The Salvation Army operates a shelter for homeless women and families in O'Fallon, but there is no shelter for single homeless men in St. Charles County.

Robert Baker, 60, is a St. Charles homeless man who regularly uses the Salvation Army soup kitchen. On June 23, Baker said he had suffered heat exhaustion twice in the last two weeks. To stay cool, Baker said he soaks his shirt in water and wears a wet towel around his neck.

"But what's worse is the bugs," Baker said. "If you try to lay down, they bite you. That's why winter is easier than summer. Summer is miserable. Between the bugs and the skeeters, the heat exhaustion, stomach cramps, there is no relief. Except for coming in here, you can't cool down."

Michael Travers, 44, said he was released from prison June 21 after serving nine years on forgery and DWI charges.

"Now I'm homeless," he said June 23 at the soup kitchen. "I'm living behind a concrete wall, behind some trees. But I still go to work every day. I'm not on welfare."

Travers was camped out behind a commercial building in St. Charles. He made his bed in the leaves at the bottom of a steep hill, buttressed by a concrete support wall. During the day, he took temp jobs through Labor Ready. At night, he hunkered down in the trees to sleep.

"I take my chances like anybody else," Travers said. "I'm still young. I just deal with it. You don't have any choice. I'm using what resources I have."

The Salvation Army was helping connect Travers with housing and employment resources, Travers said. But in St. Charles, the trees offered the only 24-hour shelter.

"If you want to go in a shelter, you have to go to St. Louis to find it," Travers said. "And most of those are in bad neighborhoods."

Hamilton said he had heard people talk about "cooling shelters" in St. Charles, but he did not know where they were or how to access them. He doubted they existed.

"The whole system is a lie," he said. "If there were cooling shelters, I would be there."

Operation Weather Survival does identify four designated cooling sites in St. Charles County - the St. Charles Senior Center at 1455 Fairgrounds Road, O'Fallon Senior Center at 106 N. Main St., St. Peters Senior Center at 108 McMenamy Road, and the Wentzville Senior Center at 506 S. Linn St.

But these cooling sites open to the general public only when the National Weather Service issues an excessive heat advisory or warning. During those periods, the sites offer air conditioning and cool water from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Debbie Fagin, chairwoman of Operation Weather Survival, said the cooling sites are aimed at seniors and people with chronic breathing conditions and other health problems. Though homeless people can use the cooling sites, the program is not aimed at the homeless population.

"The homeless is an area where we are striving to get more stakeholders involved," Fagin said. "For the homeless, you really need more outreach. People who work with the homeless find that they will not go into a shelter. Many would rather stay on the street."

Fagin said homeless people can call 211, a human services hot line. If there is a shelter nearby, someone will help them get there, she said. But in St. Charles County, there might not be a shelter nearby, she said. In that case, Fagin recommended they stay in the shade or go to an air-conditioned public place.

Gil Copley, director of the St. Charles County Department of Community Health and the Environment, said the best thing homeless people could do to cool down is to seek shelter in public places with air conditioning, including public libraries, movie theaters and shopping centers.

"That would probably be more convenient to them than a few cooling centers," Copley said. "If we had cooling centers, we would have to have a program to transport them to the sites. But we have libraries all over the county. I don't think St. Charles County will ever have a large number of cooling centers."

Interfaith pastor Tom Fogarty, an advocate for developing homeless services in St. Charles, said he is working with community leaders to find other options, including developing a network of day shelters.

"It would be a place for them to get in, out of the elements, and grab a meal or snacks," Fogarty said. "There are vacant properties we can develop for this purpose. I know it can be done."

Two church coalitions are working toward developing cooling shelters in St. Charles.

The St. Charles Ministerial Alliance, a group of interdenominational church leaders, has adopted the idea as a social action project.

"Our goal is to pool our resources to address a problem that affects the whole community," said the alliance's president, the Rev. Renita Lamkin of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church. "We are in the beginning process of talking to community leaders. We want to know what resources and programs already exist, what are the obstacles and risks, and what are the opportunities."

Billy Collier, president and CEO of United Services, said Methodist churches in St. Charles are working to develop a plan to create heating and cooling sites, but it was too early to discuss details.

In the meantime, Collier said, homeless men are receiving services from First United Methodist Church in St. Charles. The church operates the Showers of Blessing program, giving homeless men a shave and hot shower every Wednesday morning. Volunteers pick up the men outside the Salvation Army soup kitchen and bus them to the church at 801 First Capitol Drive. Besides a shower, the men receive food, clothing, toiletries and monthly haircuts.

The Showers of Blessing program is the brainchild of a First United Methodist Church member named Martha. Security concerns led her to conceal her last name from the men she serves, she said.

Martha said she knew of no cooling centers for homeless men in St. Charles County. Her program provides shelter from the heat for about three hours per week. She said there are obstacles preventing her church from becoming a cooling center.

"The problem is securing the building so they can only go in one area, and not wandering through the whole church," Martha said. "There is no way to secure the building without spending a lot of money."

Brad Farber, manager of the American Red Cross St. Charles County service center, said the Red Cross operates shelters in times of emergency, such as floods and ice storms. It takes its lead from St. Charles County government, Farber said. But the Red Cross does not operate cooling shelters for the homeless, he said.

Farber said Red Cross representatives have attended meetings with the Community Council of St. Charles County and church leaders, trying to find ways to develop heating and cooling shelters.

"Everybody agreed there was a need, but there was not a lot of consensus on how it could come together," Farber said.

Denise Liebel, executive director of the Community Council, said there are "a lot of gaps" in homeless services throughout St. Charles County.

"We are fortunate to have churches and agencies that can provide limited resources, but they are not enough to meet the total needs of the homeless, such as sheltering them during extreme temperatures," Liebel said.

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