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."
As for "individuals," he said, "our office is always open. We've got water, coffee, the conference room in back. This building isn't just for us to sit here."
There are also shopping venues, the library or the Salvation Army during the day. But all of those options, even the Red Cross, end at the close of the business day.
"If it's a homeless situation, there are other resources we can look at," Holstrom said.
For honorably discharged veterans, he said, there are multiple options. Women, especially with children, also have some opportunities. Homeless men, however, do not have as many resources locally.
This, said Butler, is "a terrible situation with no places for the homeless to stay here ... I am receiving ongoing phone calls from the hospital, organizations and the police when they come across someone who is going to be out in the cold. I can supply food to these people and blankets. But the cost of hotels are draining us."
The faith-based group's supporters, who come from diverse backgrounds representing the entire community, she said, have actually been having some success. A few members have taken in carefully screened homeless residents, a hotel owner gave a steep discount and a landlord helped by cheaply renting the group a large apartment that had been vacant. People have been pitching in a few dollars here and there, Butler said. She's avoiding government funds right now because they come with so many restrictions that people sleeping in the open today would freeze before a homeless shelter could open tomorrow.
"Whatsoever You Do is just people helping people," she said, advising potential supporters that though she is in the process of getting an IRS nonprofit letter, the grassroots Christian organization does not yet have that status. Besides accepting donations or other assistance, they are actively looking for those who need help.
"You can argue with me about right and wrong, about why we don't have a shelter, about long-term problems," she said, "but something has to be done, and done now. I'm not going to watch someone freeze to death under a bridge. Let's deal with the immediate situation and help these people ."
Just don't let your kindness put you in danger, Butler warns.
"If you come across someone homeless, please do not give them cash. If they need food, call me. I have food for those who are homeless and who do not have food stamps. I will make sure they get the food and will evaluate the situation and try to help them in whatever way is possible. Do not take them into your home, or into your car."
She knows it's tempting to want to help, she said. But one man she and others are trying to assist is homeless because his addiction to meth makes him so desperate, he steals from family and others who have taken him in. Transients passing through Ottumwa may be fugitives or scam artists. That doesn't mean anyone should be made to freeze to death, she said, but there should be some objective review of strangers seeking assistance.
Butler's group is on Facebook. Leave a message. The Red Cross has a hotline for veterans at 877-272-7337.