Fred Cox, who is homeless, gets food and hot chocolate from a Salvation Army truck that came to the Tumaini Center in Detroit. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
Tommy Lopp, 53, lost his truck driving job in October and had been living in his pickup until frigid weather forced him into one of Detroit's suddenly overcrowded shelters for the homeless.
"I don't want to be here, but it's a godsend: the warmth, the food," Lopp said on Wednesday inside the Tumaini warming center near Wayne State University. "Sleeping in those metal chairs is pretty uncomfortable, but I was so cold."
Metro Detroiters struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy Wednesday as the region fought arctic chill that could linger until Sunday. Work crews battled failing equipment. Thousands found themselves with dead car batteries. And police say icy conditions contributed to dozens of crashes on area roads by nightfall.
School administrators will keep their eyes on the thermometer. Traditionally, schools don't shut down for cold temps alone until they reach a real feel of around 30 below, said Frank Ruggirello, director of community relations for the Plymouth-Canton school district.
But a wind chill expected to plunge as low as minus 20 degrees in some areas prompted officials to cancel classes today at East Detroit Public Schools in Eastpointe.
The bitter cold was particularly brutal on the homeless and poor. Michael Alston, 51, lost both feet to frostbite four years ago. He pushed his wheelchair through the deep snow to a Salvation Army canteen truck for free soup. Keefe Lancaster, 53, said police brought him to the Tumaini facility early Wednesday morning after catching him sleeping near a steam vent on Hart Plaza.
"I don't like to sleep in there with all those people," Lancaster said about the facility that normally closes overnight but has been held open 24 hours to handle the need. "But I guess I got to. It's too cold."
With the National Weather Service warning the wind chill factor could plunge to between minus 10 and minus 20 degrees, shelter organizers fear exposure and even death for some of the area's homeless.
Chad Audi, president and CEO of Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, said his shelters are filled well beyond their 260-bed capacity. Spare mattresses were placed on the floors. Others slept in chairs.
"We have had 400 to 450 a night and this is the time of year when you kick no one out," Audi said. "We hope no one is still outside, but I fear some are."
At the Tumaini Center, they are seeing more than 400 people a day. Normal winter visits might number 150, said Christopher Parks, director of homeless services for center operator Neighborhood Service Organization.
"No matter what got you to where you are at, human beings shouldn't be in these conditions," Parks said.
There are no known homeless deaths yet this season, he said. "We lost a couple of our folks last winter. They were found in abandoned buildings, dead from natural causes for the homeless: exposure, heart attacks. It's certainly cold enough again to cause this to happen."
The homeless beyond the city are being affected by the severe cold. Kevin Roach, executive director of the South Oakland Shelter in Royal Oak expected a capacity crowd again Wednesday night where about 25 people have been turned away daily.
The organization has weekly rotating emergency shelters at 67 churches throughout Oakland County, and has a 30-bed capacity.
"It's like the perfect storm with low temperatures and the increase of homeless people who need shelter while the number of beds we have available remains the same," Roach said. The shelter has been sending people to other shelters and warming centers like St. Mary's in Royal Oak.
Lobby doors stayed open at the Roseville offices of the Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team, ready for anyone who needed a place to get the chill out of their bones.
"We don't want people out on the street," said Jimetta Lewis, executive director. "That's all there is to it. Anyone who comes in and we can't give them a bed, we're telling them immediately to get to a warming center and give them a bus ticket to get there."
In Livonia, public service crews already weary from weekend snowstorms battled not only the cold but a broken water main on Middle Belt south of Seven Mile in Livonia.
"It certainly is a challenge out there right now," said Brian Wilson, Livonia public service superintendent. "This cold is not kind to the equipment. We're having the need for jumps in the morning like everyone else and we don't have the ability to put everything inside."
Others also soldiered on; unwilling or financially unable to let the cold affect their daily lives.
Snowflakes collected on 23-year-old Jeffrey Holliday's eyelashes and beard as he waved to traffic on Michigan Avenue in Detroit, wearing the green robes and crown of Lady Liberty to advertise a tax preparation service.
"It's really cold, but that's all right. It's work," he said about the $7.50 per hour job that had him standing in the cold for hours. Wednesday marked Holliday's first day on the job. He needs the money to support 2-year-old daughter, Ja-Nila. Beneath the costume, he wore three pairs of pants, four shirts and two sweaters. "I take a break now and then and they give me something warm to drink," he said about the tax preparation office at 6500 Michigan Avenue. "I'm cold but it's OK."
Harrison Township resident Michael Holland worked to finish a three-day construction project. Holland, owner of Thomas Construction, replaced missing shingles on the roof of a Mount Clemens home. But first he had to clear off the snow.
"Today it's just frigid cold," said Holland, 49. "It's a little hard to breathe up there."
Wesley Middleton, 27, was out for a three-mile run on Normandy near Crooks in Royal Oak on Wednesday afternoon. "I know people see me and think I'm crazy but I don't mind the cold so much. I find it invigorating," he said.
Calls to AAA Michigan shifted from victims of spinouts over the weekend to reports of dead batteries. The organization received more than 7,000 calls from stranded motorists Tuesday and Wednesday, spokeswoman Nancy Cain said.
Detroit Receiving Hospital had treated two people for chest pains after they shoveled snow.
"Michigan winters can be pretty harsh," Dr. Michael White, medical director of Detroit Receiving Hospital said in a statement issued Wednesday. "On extremely cold days the onset of frostbite symptoms can be fairly quick."
The cold snap gripping Metro Detroit is part of a larger system that sent temperatures plunging to single digits and below from the Midwest into the Northeast.
Schools from Iowa to North Carolina opened late so kids would not have to be out in the coldest part of the morning. Some schools closed altogether.
No deaths were reported in the Northeast, but snowy conditions caused a 14-car crash Wednesday on Interstate 75 in Ohio and a truck that slowed to avoid the wreckage slammed into a car, killing its 55-year-old driver, said Tipp City patrolman Greg Adkins.
Also on Wednesday, two men died in a 20-vehicle pileup in near-blizzard conditions on the Indiana Toll Road.
A day earlier, a Wisconsin man died of exposure after wandering from his home; relatives said he was prone to sleepwalking. Poor visibility in blowing snow caused a 20-car pileup that killed two people Wednesday in Indiana.
Northern Georgia and Kentucky could see single-digit lows by Friday, with zero possible at Lexington, Ky., the weather service said. Kentucky hasn't been that cold since December 2004.
In Metro Detroit, the National Weather Service issued a wind chill watch for tonight through Saturday morning because the relative temperature due to expected winds will plummet as low as minus 14 degrees. Wind chill factors of minus 20 degrees and below are considered dangerous, according to the weather service.
Detroit News Staff Writers Delores Flynn, Candice Williams, Charles E. Ramirez and Mark Hicks contributed to this report.
Coping with the cold
What is frostbite?
Frostbite is caused by exposure to dry, cold temperatures below freezing. It can result in permanent damage and tissue loss. The most susceptible body parts are fingers, toes, cheeks, ear lobes and the tip of the nose . A precursor to frostbite is frostnip, in which the skin is numb, white and firm to the touch.
What are the symptoms?
Early symptoms include tingling, numbness and pain in the affected area. The skin turns white or gray, and is cold and hard to the touch. There is no feeling in the affected area.
How do I treat frostbite?
Seek medical attention immediately. If transportation is delayed, warm the affected area in warm bath water. Give the person warm, non-alcoholic fluids.
What is hypothermia?
Hypothermia occurs when the body's core temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
What are the symptoms?
Slurred speech, decreased coordination, uncontrollable shivering, cold and pale skin, blue lips and nails, stiffening of neck and limbs, memory lapses, stumbling, abnormally slow breathing and a slow, irregular heart beat.
How do I treat hypothermia?
Seek medical attention immediately. In mild hypothermia, give the person warm, non-alcoholic fluids and cover his or her head.
Tips for motorists
Sources: Henry Ford Hospital's Department of Emergency Medicine, AAA Michigan