A thin blanket of snow covered the ashes of a homeless camp's fire ring in downtown Omaha on Sunday, a sign that no one had used it in recent days.
Outreach workers Ann Smolsky and Taylor Sutton were glad to see that, even though they went out Sunday to find homeless people because of the forecast of extreme cold.
“It would be great not to find anybody because everybody's gone inside because it's so cold,” said Smolsky, program coordinator of the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless.
It was a just-in-case mission for Smolsky, Sutton and other outreach workers Sunday. When it's this cold, even those most inured to the elements and most determined to stay outside have found a place inside.
Most are apparently staying in shelters, or crashing for a couple of nights on a friend's or relative's couch, or hunkering down in an abandoned building or a tent.
“We've seen a huge decrease in the number of people who are outside,” said Sutton, who works for the Nebraska AIDS Project and joins regular outreach teams on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Usually we see about 15, but lately it's been one, two or three.”
Another outreach crew found a homeless man in South Omaha, gave him warm clothes and received his assurances that he would go to a shelter.
Church volunteers from Atlantic, Iowa, arranged for two homeless people to stay in a hotel for a couple of nights.
Only those with the fewest options, or people in mental health crises, would still be out on a night like Sunday.
Hauling a box of chemical handwarmer packets and bags of warm clothing, Smolsky and Sutton drove and hiked Sunday to a dozen Omaha places where people often stay outside, from the Missouri River past 72nd Street.
No one was there. An often- occupied recliner sat empty between a midtown Omaha building and dumpster. An empty coat arm dangled over a concrete wall beneath an Interstate bridge. A sleeping bag and pillow lay against the wall of a business near the Keystone Trail — enough to warrant a further look, which revealed no one nearby.
While no news may have been good news Sunday, it may not be the end of the story. Smolsky has heard of two people found dead outdoors already this winter.
And frostbite takes a toll that's not always noticed right away.
“We won't see the effects of this for a couple of weeks, when we see people who have gangrene” after suffering frostbite, said Del Bomberger, Stephen Center CEO. “We've seen lots of people lose toes.”