Officials: Some homeless avoid shelters even at the risk of death

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HAZARD, Ky. (WYMT) -- People who are outside for long periods of time, including those without a home, are in danger of hypothermia, frostbite and even death.

In some instances, people living without shelter will not seek out warming centers or homeless shelters. With temperatures in the single digits, officials with Kentucky River Community Care Mental Health say irreversible damage can be done to the human body.

"Their extremities, their feet, their hands, ears will freeze," said LPN social worker Robert Thompson. "And the tissue will necrotize. It will die. And you can lose limbs. And that is sometimes easily within less than an hour."

The people at most risk are those without a place to stay. Homeless shelter officials say, besides mental illness, some homeless people can suffer from social anxieties, preventing them from seeking shelters.

"There will be people that feel safe coming to a homeless shelter and we will be there for those people, and then there will be people that don't feel safe coming around that many people," said Ben Fugate, president of Hope House in Hazard, Kentucky. "Or maybe there's an instance where someone on the street has issues with someone living at the shelter. With all these factors in mind, it does take the whole community."

Issues with drug and alcohol addiction can also prevent homeless people from seeking shelter. While Hope House does not all those substances, they do allow more people inside during the cold.

"Anytime it's 35 degrees or lower, we basically open our doors to anybody," said Fugate. "So we have rooms for our residence where they have a permanent bed for as long as they need it to get back on their feet, but during the cold weather, we put beds anywhere we can get them."

Officials with KRCC recommend saying something if you see someone sleeping in the cold.

"If you do feel comfortable in approaching them and saying, 'Hey, there is a shelter here, you might want to go by there.' If you're not comfortable, then the best option is to telephone 911 and explain that you're seeing someone sleeping on a bench or out in the cold and you'd like an officer to check on them," said Thompson.

During times of extremely cold weather, Fugate said Hope House can accommodate as many as 40 people in the building. For a complete and updated list of items needed to support those living at the Hope House, visit their Facebook page.

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