With Polar Vortex Comes a Vortex of Shelter-Based Predator Panic

America is in the midst of a wave of bitter cold, and possibly the coldest surge of arctic air in decades this week. Just how cold is it? Today’s USA Today headline reads, “Yes, Chicago will be colder than Antarctica, Alaska and the North Pole on Wednesday.” The “polar vortex” has only recently been used as a media buzzword (the term has been used for decades by meteorologists), but already invokes a wave of panic concerning bitter cold temperatures. Local news broadcasts in the areas affected by the “polar vortex” are filled with stories of announcements of school and business closings and openings of emergency shelters for the homeless or those without adequate heat in their homes.

However, with many of these announcements come the peculiar phrase “sex offender background checks.” The Morning Journal (Loraine, OH) reports the Neighborhood Alliance Haven Center, 1536 E. 30th St. in Lorain will reject SOs. Tonight’s low for Loraine is -1. KY3 (Springfield MO) reports the Salvation Army will conduct “sex offender background checks.” Tonight’s low for Springfield is 5. Just as registrants fleeing hurricanes are routinely denied shelter in coastal states, registered persons have faced rejection from emergency shelters during this spate of bitter cold temperatures.

It has been a full decade almost to the day since Thomas Pauli’s death made headlines across the USA. Pauli froze to death on January 26, 2009 in Grand Rapids MI; the low for that night was -3. He tried to seek shelter that night but was denied because the shelter was too close to a school (which was shut down due to the inclement weather). Pauli was found in a parking lot next to a recycling factory. State Senator Nancy Cassis, a supporter of Michigan’s sex offender laws, said the sex offender residency laws were sound but that it appeared the social safety net failed to protect Pauli. “What other options did they give him?” she asked. “Were police contacted? How about the Salvation Army? Or soup kitchens, there’s plenty of them. What about synagogue and churches? I view them all as part of the safety net.” Senator Cassis was oblivious to the fact that shelters routinely deny services to registered persons largely due to the law she supported. Even without the law, organizations like the Salvation Army routinely discriminate against registered persons.

Sadly, a full decade after this tragedy, it is painfully obvious we never learned from his lesson.

The bitter cold may have already claimed one homeless registrant in Springfield even before dipping into the single digits—the body of Andrew M. Rodiger was found by homeless folks seeking a campsite last week. Officials believe Rodiger died from hyperthermia; lows in Springfield dipped into the teens last week. In Greenfield MA, the body of Clayton Aaron Wheeler was found by authorities on Monday the 21st; while the official cause of death hasn’t been determined, weather likely played a role in his death. The low for Greenfield MA on January 21 was 0.

Interestingly, Wheeler was offered shelter and other services, but he rejected it, according to the Greenfield Reporter. It was obvious Wheeler had no faith in people claiming to want to help him. Who can blame him? Some Greenfield residents expressed outrage that a vigil was held in Wheeler’s honor. George Ballentine, an advocate for the homeless, said recently Wheeler told him he feels like “just another inmate number.” Ballentine said of Wheeler’s registrant status, “They get a label and people lose compassion for the person’s humanity.”

Hypothermia is not a particularly painful yet a particularly cruel way to die. Most people aren’t even aware they are dying of it because mental confusion is a primary symptom of extreme hypothermia. Stories of hypothermia survivors have described the feeling of their life flashing before their eyes, having visions of their life gone by. It causes the brain to act irrationally; people in the final stages may shed their clothes, for example. It is as if they are prepared to die. Thomas Pauli’s death was described as if he had embraced his own death. If that is true, I believe it was the not the result of hypothermia, but from the disease that is the public registry. Wheeler chose to take his chances with death than to accept assistance because of the effect of his registry status. This action is not surprising – in a survey conducted by OnceFallen of 100 registrants in 2018, a fourth of respondents stated they would take their chances with an approaching disaster rather than go to a segregated shelter.

The Greenfield MA City Council will hold a meeting on Thursday, January 31 at 7pm at the Greenfield High School. State Senator Jo Comerford, (D-Northampton) and State Representative Paul Mark (D-Peru) will be there. The Greenfield City Council will be there. Homeless advocates will be there. Of course, angry, misinformed, concerned citizens will be there. It is unlikely registered persons would attend given the venue. However, our voices must not be silenced. If we are going to prevent the deaths of more registered persons by extreme weather, it is our duty to confront the cruelty of laws and business practices designed to prevent us from seeking shelter just to survive a disaster. Thomas Pauli never had a voice. This bitter cold and the moral panic accompanying it should remind us why we should use ours.

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