On Saturday, as the weather reports forecast subzero temperatures, Debra Hensley, an insurance agent and volunteer advocate for the homeless, began worrying about a woman named Dorothy, a well-known denizen of the streets in her neighborhood in Lexington, KY. That day, Hensley wrote on her Facebook page, "Does anyone know the whereabouts of an African-American Homeless woman [who] pushes a few grocery carts, [wears] a black coat and very thick/broken glasses…I try to meet up with her on a regular basis and put money on a Kroger card that I gave over a year ago…Please friends, look after her and pray for her safety."
According to the National Coalition For the Homeless, at least 700 homeless people die each year from hypothermia, and the recent blast of freezing weather caused by the polar vortex hit especially hard in communities that don't usually have to deal with such cold.
Immediately, Hensley's friends and contacts began to respond with tips about Dorothy's location. One had spotted her huddled in a sunny spot out of the wind, another near a church, and someone saw her pushing her carts along her usual route. Dorothy is one of about 1,500 homeless people in the city, which has a total population of just over 300,000. (Hensley is currently out of town and was unavailable for comment for this story.)
By the following afternoon, Hensley had good news to report: "Thanks to many fine people with the Police Department (they are absolute saints) and professionals in the field of Mental Health we have Dorothy in a safe place. This is only temporary and we hope she will stay. Please continue to keep her in your thoughts and prayers and all those who suffer." The police, including Sgt. April Brown, had found Dorothy and provided her with a hotel room. "I said, 'Dorothy, we don't want to leave you out here. We don't want anything bad to happen to you,'" Brown told Kentucky.com. "'If you stay out here, something bad will happen. The weather will be too much for you to bear.' I'm a soldier; been a soldier for 23 years, and even I would not stay out here if I didn't have to." Dorothy, who suffers from mental illness, but has been declared legally competent, acquiesced.
"She gives homeless people a face in our city," Ginny Ramsey of the Catholic Action Center, a homeless shelter and advocacy group in Lexington, told Yahoo! Shine. People in the neighborhood were especially concerned for Dorothy and were determined to track her down. "Debra Hensley, who is a wonderful woman in our community, put it out on her Facebook," Ramsey added, before praising the police force. "We must have the most compassionate police force to the homeless in the whole country."
Unlike many of those living on the streets, Dorothy is fortunate to be known and cared for by her community. Sadly, neuroimaging tests have shown that people react to pictures of the homeless as if they were looking at inanimate objects instead of human beings. Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition For the Homeless, says that the first step ordinary citizens can take toward helping end homelessness is getting to know individuals in their communities. "In downtown America, we all come across people who are living outside," he told Yahoo! Shine. "The starting point is getting to know the person who you walk by every day. It doesn't necessarily mean giving money, but asking their name and what kind of help they are getting . . . Every citizen should be able to link that person up with services in their neighborhood."
Stoops also pointed out that compassion tends to drop off after the holidays and Winter weather have passed. "Living outside anytime of year is unhealthy, and there are many dangers, especially for women." He added, "We should ask ourselves why we allow people to live unsheltered lives in any community."
Meanwhile, Ramsey said she got a call on Thursday morning, notifying her that Dorothy was back out on the street. "I keep saying, 'Look, Dorothy, we are both getting older — it's time to come in.'"
— Sarah B. Weir