FARMINGTON — With early winter temperatures dropping to unusual lows this year, many people who call the streets home are scrambling to find a warm place to spend the night -- or even to spend the bone-numbingly cold days.
Fortunately, Farmington has several places for the homeless to go to get out of the cold, and so far this winter no one has died of exposure.
Farmington Police also routinely patrol areas where the homeless are known to sleep and try to get people inside before nightfall.
"We've been finding some people outside at night, but for the most part, people are using The Roof," said Randy Velarde, a downtown bicycle patrol officer with the Farmington Police Department. "They're also layering up, sometimes wearing three jackets."
The Roof, which is funded by the City of Farmington and operated by the Salvation Army, is one of the only "wet" shelters in the country -- "wet" referring to the fact that the shelter allows intoxicated individuals to use the facility. Most shelters require visitors to prove that they are drug- and alcohol-free.
The New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness reports that this year there has been a slight decrease in street and shelter homelessness, but an increase in families that are "doubling up" -- having to share homes or live with relatives.
Locally, officials at shelters and service agencies like The Roof say they have noticed a recent upswing in people seeking help.
"Compared with last year, we are up population-wise," said Lieutenant Bill Simon with Farmington's Salvation Army. "Earlier, we ran out of bedding, mats and sheets, but are receiving help from the Noonday Civitans. They have really stepped up and have also provided blankets and coats."
The Roof, which is only open during the winter months from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., has been averaging approximately 47 to 52 men and women per night, said Simon.
In addition to operating the shelter, the Salvation Army sends a van around town three times a night looking for people sleeping in parks or under bridges to transport them to the shelter and prevent exposure deaths.
And with the frigid temperatures, Simon said, the shelter has been cranking up the heat.
"We set the heat in the shelter high, so people can come in and get warm and sleep," he said. "We let them know that we're here to offer help."
While shelter is available during evening hours, it's often trickier for the street homeless to find a warm place during the day. Simon said he allows people to use the main Salvation Army building to stay warm during the day, and some of the homeless utilize different locations such as stores to wait out the hours until The Roof opens.
Another location frequented by the homeless during the day is Catholic Charities. The charity offers free breakfasts, snacks and dinners most weekdays.
"The numbers of homeless drop-ins are up, but I'm thinking that by the Friday before Christmas we'll start to see the numbers drop as people start hitchhiking home to the reservation," said Catholic Charities Director Debe Betts.
Betts explains that many of the street homeless want to be home for Christmas, but aren't allowed inside their families' homes because of their past behavior and addictions.
"They've been collecting blankets so they can sleep outside," she said. "They've told me they've been so bad to their families they can't go inside, but they still want to be close."
Catholic Charities had a roomful of blankets they'd collected throughout the year that reached up to the ceiling, but the collection is now almost depleted, Betts said.
Betts has also noticed an increase in people seeking food who are not homeless.
"There's probably been a 15 to 20 percent increase in new people who need food. Especially following the (government) furlough, there were more people coming in for food boxes. A lot of people were affected by it, and they just need food."
Because of the cold, the Catholic Charities staff has been allowing the homeless to sit in the facility's lobby during the day and drink coffee.
"Their bones just can't take the cold," she said.
The other main emergency homeless shelter in the region is operated by People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH.
While PATH Director Jonna Sharpe said she hasn't seen an difference this year in the amount people seeking shelter at the homeless facility, she has noticed an upswing in the number of people seeking food at Daily Bread, the soup kitchen operated by PATH.
"We serve between 115 and 120 people per day at The Daily Bread," Sharpe said. "We're seeing more people who aren't homeless, but who just need food, and are seeing more on the weekends."
As for the street homeless, Sharpe said some have been wandering in to the shelter to try to stay warm, but because PATH is a "dry" shelter, they cannot remain on the premises if they are intoxicated.
"We can only accommodate people who are willing to meet us half way -- they have to do their part," Sharpe said.
In addition to their regular patrols, Velarde said the Police Department is trying other approaches. He said he often makes announcements to the homeless population gathered in the mornings at Catholic Charities.
"I will get everyone's attention, and tell them they need to get inside at night and not camp out in the bushes. I tell them especially if they get wet, they need to get inside as soon as possible, because with hypothermia you go downhill fast," he said. "People sometimes try to tough it out outside, and that's not a good thing."