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Cold Forces Area Shelters into Emergency Plans

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - With temperatures dipping well below zero, some Eastern Iowans worry they'll have to sleep outside in these conditions. That's why many area homeless shelters now operate under their emergency overflow beds policy.

We've heard the sad stories about people literally freezing to death in these conditions. So for the past two years, area shelters implemented new rules to allow more people to stay indoors overnight. That's why many are at, or near capacity because of the extreme cold.

A cot may not be much if you're used to a big, fluffy bed, but for a homeless person, it's the difference between staying indoors or sleeping outside in below zero weather.

"Our capacity is at full or near full and sometimes we have to use our overflow cots because of the capacity," said Cedar House Shelter Director Raymond Krug.

Cedar House Shelter provides for about 21 people a night. The number significantly varies at the Willis Dady Emergency Shelter. About three dozen spots for singles, but family units can range from three people to seven members. Homeless children stay here indefinitely.

"There are a lot of homeless students in Linn County. There's an average of one in six students who are homeless. They may not be in a shelter but doubled up with family or in transitional housing," said Willis Dady Emergency Shelter Executive Director Tim Wilson.

Just two years ago, a special grant helped pay for extra bedding, pillows and cots for local shelters. For the growing number of homeless in Eastern Iowa, sleeping outside in these conditions isn't an option.

"They probably have to walk around and go from one overnight store to another overnight store. It would be quite impossible to sleep out in the cold. Most people that are homeless stay up all night and possibly sleep during the day," said Krug.

Area shelters learned the dangers of turning people away back in 2006 when Steven Howard froze to death outside. His memorial room in the Cedar House Shelter serves as a reminder to shelter staff across Eastern Iowa to do whatever they can to house those in need.

"We'll make some arrangements for their safety. It may not be at our shelter but we'll find some way for them to stay warm at night," said Wilson.

But because of all the extra people staying at the shelter more often and for longer stays, Cedar House Shelter staff say they can't keep up with their utility costs. That's why they're asking for donations to help pay for those bills. Staff say everything goes up when they're serving more clients.

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