Freezing temperatures blamed for two homeless deaths in N.O.

Although winters in New Orleans can be frigid, the temperature does not normally fall to dangerously low levels.

When the mercury is expected to drop to 35 degrees or below for more than four hours, however, city officials and homeless advocates activate a freeze plan designed to shelter the estimated 2,300 people who live on the city’s streets and who are among those most vulnerable to frigid temperatures.

Despite those efforts, though, many homeless people choose to brave the elements — a frustrating fact for those who fan out into the city in an effort to get them indoors.

Two people who apparently refused offers of help died this week while staying outdoors on nights when the temperature was in the low to mid-20s with a windchill in the low teens.

The body of Charles A. Bourgeois, 32, was found Tuesday near the Hilton New Orleans Riverside hotel at the foot of Poydras Street. Davetta Odom, 58, was found Wednesday inside a tent underneath the Pontchartrain Expressway in the 2300 block of Earhart Boulevard.

Both died of hypothermia, said John Gagliano, the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office’s chief investigator.

Advocates for the homeless suggest the weather also exacerbated the frailties of a person whose body was found in a doorway near Martin Luther King and Oretha Castle Haley boulevards early Tuesday, though an autopsy found nothing to suggest that 68-year-old man died as a result of the weather, Gagliano said.

The reasons people refuse assistance are varied and individual, though there are common refrains: that shelters can be too restrictive with their hours, that the facilities can be dangerous and are not always clean.

“You’ve gotta go in early as hell,” said Naim Hunter, 29, who lives in a tent a short distance away from where Odom was found. “The only good thing about it (the shelter) is the food.”

Some observers, on the other hand, suggest that those with substance-abuse problems or mental-health issues are not always able to make rational decisions.

Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a homelessness collaborative, described the deaths of Odom and Bourgeois as a “terrible, heartbreaking tragedy” that “makes us all the more determined to further accelerate the pace at which our community is permanently housing vulnerable people so that so many people are no longer at risk.”

Meanwhile, she said, UNITY will work to lower some barriers at shelters, hoping that might prod more people to move into them during hard freezes, as well as working more closely with hospitals to commit people whose mental disorders might make them unable to care for themselves during those times.

“By working together, we can solve this problem,” Kegel said.

The city activated its freeze plan on Jan. 2, 5, 6 and 7.

When that happens, officials with New Orleans EMS and the police and fire departments, in addition to UNITY staffers, visit homeless individuals to alert them to the dangerous weather and to suggest they head to a shelter, said Deputy Mayor Jerry Sneed, the city’s director of homeland security.

Four shelters — the New Orleans Mission, the Salvation Army, Ozanam Inn and a city facility designed to house those unable to find space at the other locations — housed a total of 1,911 people the four nights the freeze plan was in effect, according to figures the city provided.

Each shelter saw an increase in the number of people it took in as the nights got colder.

Sneed said that in extreme cases, when a person absolutely refuses to budge from his or her spot on the street, he or she may be offered an additional blanket to help keep warm, though that practice is one homeless advocates try to avoid.

“If you start handing out blankets, that defeats the push to get them in. That’s the last resort,” he said. “It’s frustrating, but we encourage them and do everything we can.”