Amid Polar Vortex, officials make sure nobody has to sleep outside in Minneapolis

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Most of us like to complain about the Polar Vortex from the comfort of our climate-controlled homes, cars, or offices. For the homeless, however, the possibility of trying to survive outside on a night when temperatures are set to fall as low as -19 is deadly serious.

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But Joseph Desenclos, program manager of St. Stephen's street outreach team, says area shelters make sure everybody has a warm place to stay on nights like tonight.

Desenclos said that on days like today, St. Stephen's gets about 25 to 35 calls "from community members who see people panhandling." The main priority then becomes getting them off the streets and into someplace warm.

"We try to get them in a shelter first, or if they don't want to do that because of overcrowding then we check and see if they have any friends they can stay with," Desenclos told us, adding that area shelters generally coordinate their policies. "As a last resort, we have a small amount of funds to get people in motels."

The motel funds come from several sources, including grants and donations, Desenclos said.

"Our main purpose is to find people permanent housing, but in really cold weather we have to get in crisis mode and meet people's needs really quick," Desenclos said. "But sometimes, when people stay in a motel a couple days we engage with them and change their perceptions on going inside."

"The last cold snap, a guy who stayed in a hotel told us, 'That was the first time I felt like a human being.' So sometimes it's really helpful in our engagement to provide some real brief emergency temporary shelter," Desenclos continued.

But despite the help available, some choose to remain outside.

"Sometimes we have people that stay outside because moving in and having that commitment is pretty scary for them," Desenclos said.

Mikkel Beckmen, director of the office to end homelessness for Hennepin County, recently told us that the latest numbers gathered by the county indicate about 150 people are fending for themselves on the streets of Minneapolis on a given night. That number is down about 40 percent since Hennepin County instituted its 10-year plan to end homelessness back in 2006, Beckmen said.

Reached for comment today, Beckmen said, "Most people living outside know what to do when the weather gets too hot or too cold."

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"Tonight, we'll open warming centers in places like churches that aren't normally open," Beckmen said. "If you go to a place like the Harbor Lights Center, you'll see people anywhere they can find space, with mats down on the floor and in hallways, things like that."

Asked about how shelter workers who put in extra shifts during emergencies get paid, Beckman said "there's no special fund." He added that those who work with the homeless community simply know when extra shifts are necessary.

"It's part of the service," he said.

St. Stephen's runs two shelters: a year-round men's shelter At 2211 Clinton Avenue that houses 40 on the South Side, and a men's emergency center housing 45 in the north part of the city.

But even when those two are at capacity, St. Stephen's workers coordinate with other shelters to find warm places for people.

"We'll put down mats, but generally we try to figure out what places have spots available," Desenclos said.

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