The Ottumwa Courier


January 6, 2014

Rescuing the coldest Ottumwans

OTTUMWA — Most cars weren't warm, Wapello County commuters noticed Monday morning. Imagine having spent the night there, with no money for gas.

"I can't see people dying under the bridge, not in a town this size," said Mary Margaret Butler, one of the founding members of a local faith-based group, Whatsoever You Do. "I am not going to watch someone die. There's no excuse for that."

Their Facebook page has received a lot of traffic as word of the coldest day in years started circulating. She and other members have been finding people living on the street — or in one couple's case, in a car — and found them someplace warm for a few nights.

Make no mistake, said a former community action official: You may not notice them, but there are people in danger of freezing to death within 15 minutes of your house. A local leader within the pastoral community agreed.

"There are homeless people in Ottumwa," confirmed Pastor Ron Barnett at St. Paul Lutheran Church.

Last year, Ottumwa's only homeless shelter for men closed.

"It's not always a case of people sleeping out on the street. There are people staying temporarily on a friend's couch," said the pastor before clarifying that "there are also people living in their car."

Brandon Holstrom, American Red Cross disaster support manager, said if there were to be a major power outage, the Red Cross and local emergency management coordinator would work to find a warm place.

"It's all about where the power outage is located and the scale," he said. "We have agreements [with places] all around Ottumwa. But they don't always get used. Traditionally in Iowa, people find other places to stay — family, friends. But we like to have that option available to them."

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