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Even in the frigid cold, some homeless people reject warming shelters


In Portland, Maine, wind chills of more than 40 degrees below zero have prompted social service workers to try to convince people without safe, stable housing to head to warming centers. But often people don't want to leave their makeshift shelters behind out of fear that someone will take their things while they're gone. Teams like the one at Milestone Recovery try to help. Carol Bousquet from Maine Public Radio went along.

CAROL BOUSQUET, BYLINE: The team from the nonprofit social service agency Milestone Recovery travels the well-trodden path through the snow into the woods to bring propane, food, medicine and water to Hazen Shaw. Shaw, whose friends call him Jack, says he's been unhoused off and on for 10 years and built his crudely constructed shelter last year out of what he calls finds.

JACK SHAW: The wind has pretty much ripped up a lot of my tarp, talk, so I dragged back some plywood that I found over towards the interstate and put on the sides and insulated it a little bit.

BOUSQUET: Jack doesn't plan to leave to go to the temporary shelter, and the propane Milestone brings him allows him to run his heater and a one-burner grill that he says keeps his shelter at about 60 to 65 degrees inside. He says he thinks he can withstand the brutal cold with help from Milestone, but he knows not everyone out here can.

SHAW: If it wasn't for them bringing us water and food and stuff, there's no way. They'd be finding people out here frozen. Some people just can't survive that, you know. They can't survive this cold like this. And they don't know what to do. They freeze up. They forget how to build a fire, even.

BOUSQUET: You must worry about them.

COURTNEY BASS: We do. We worry about them often. That's why we are out here with food, water and make sure that they have heat so they're safe.

BOUSQUET: Milestone's Courtney Bass says a temporary shelter in the city is not what Jacques and other unhoused residents out here need. What they need, she says, are permanent solutions and an understanding that their situation is not always their first choice.

BASS: You know, respect the fact that they have to camp right now, that there is no other options. And they're just people trying to survive like everybody else.

BOUSQUET: For NPR News, I'm Carol Bousquet in Portland, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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