One local advocate for the homeless said a man she was helping lost all 10 of his toes due to frostbite from having to stay outside during 22° weather. Under the current local white flag policies, an emergency shelter is not opened unless the temperature or wind chill is 15° or lower. Advocates are pushing for that temperature to be changed to at least 32°.
The City and County governments currently have the same policy for white flag events. When such events are declared, a designated emergency shelter — the Daniel Pitino Shelter under the current agreement — is required to be open to all homeless men, women, and children who need a warm place to stay.
City Manager Nate Pagan said that the 15° threshold was decided upon after a recommendation by the Homeless Coalition of Ohio Valley when white flag events began in 2017.
Daviess County Fiscal Court passed the annual resolution at their October 19 meeting. The Owensboro City Commission narrowly approved theirs on November 7, but not without comment from the public.
Kim Jones, local business owner and homeless advocate, requested the city raise the temperature to 35° to follow the standard held by Louisville, Evansville, and Henderson. Her request comes after helping the individual who she said was hospitalized for frostbite.
“He was admitted to the hospital where he spent 10 or more days. He had surgery to remove all 10 of his toes due to the frostbite he received from the bitter cold,” Jones said. “…This (policy) urgently needs to be changed due to the temperature having already fallen into the 20s (some nights) and the shelters have been full.”
Jeff Berry, Chair of the Homeless Coalition of the Ohio Valley, said Thursday that he suggests moving the temperature for a white flag to be delcared to 32°.
Berry recalled volunteering during white flag events from 2017-2022. He said there were days when it was 17° but individuals weren’t able to come in because that wasn’t considered cold enough under the policy.
“There are all kinds of factors that lead to them not wanting to go into a shelter,” Berry said, noting some individuals choose not to stay at a shelter unless it’s absolutely necessary. “But for us to be there for when it gets dangerously cold, I believe that’s on us to do to save lives.”
The City Commission initially voted 3-2 against the annual resolution due to wanting to raise the temperature that would allow a white flag to be declared. However, Pagan said they should at least enact the same policy until a new one can be agreed upon among City Commissioner and Fiscal Court.
“My recommendation to the Board of Commissioners would be to go ahead and approve this because we’re already in that season. If there’s interest in amending that temperature, it needs to be done in consultation with the county,” Pagan said during Tuesday’s meeting.
The City Commission followed the recommendation to approve the policy with the 15° threshold.
Currently, the City and County split expenses for white flag events, including pay for staff at the Pitino shelter, free bus fare to the shelter, cleaning of linens, and other expenses. As more white flags would be declared by a higher temperature threshold, expenses would rise.
Daviess County Judge-Executive Charlie Castlen said the decision doesn’t come down solely to finances, though.
“This is not just about money; this is about overwhelming our resources,” Castlen said Wednesday night, noting the extra staffing and hours that would be required.
Pitino Shelter Executive Director Harry Pedigo said Thursday they are already preparing for what would look like.
In the 2022-23 white flag season, Pedigo said they saw an average of 15 individuals come in when the events were declared — with some nights getting as high as 26 people. However, never has the shelter reached capacity, Pedigo said.
Pedigo noted they don’t rely on volunteers to man the white flag area because finding them has been difficult — especially for a 12-hour shift.
“I’ve had to hire my staff over there because you just don’t find a lot of volunteers that want to leave their house after 11 o’clock at night,” Pedigo said.
This year, Pedigo is looking into hiring dedicated people to monitor white flag nights. He added that asking just one person to potentially work 12-hour shifts for several days in a row wouldn’t be feasible.
“I can’t work an individual 5 days in a row, 12 hours a day. I would need a second staff member if not a third one,” he said. “… What would be great is if you can get church groups that would come here and help to volunteer or staff it, but we’ve tried that too and since COVID hit people are just not as eager to volunteer overnight.”
Conversations are still underway among all parties regarding a policy change. If a decision is made to raise the temperature, both the City and County would be able to pass an amendment on the first reading when it is introduced.