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Footprints in the Snow

on Feb 10, 2021

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The temperature was 8 degrees Fahrenheit. My eyelashes were frozen. I was wearing 2 pairs of leggings under my jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and wool sweater, 2 pairs of socks with foot warmers inside my winter boots, 2 pair of gloves with hand warmers inside, 2 hats and a scarf around my neck. I was still uncomfortably cold. 


The “Point in Time,” also known as PIT, is a HUD-directed, nationwide count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. On a single, designated date in January, organizations that serve the homeless send volunteers into the night to search for people sheltering from the cold. I volunteered to help this year, and was assigned a shift from 11:00 pm to 3:00 am. Together with a partner from another nonprofit, we were tasked to search a gas station, a corner diner, the hospital, parks, and the riverfront.



We arrived at the gas station first, and I asked the attendant if he ever encounters people who are homeless. Although he hadn’t seen any that night, he said that people without a home often come into the gas station to warm up, especially in winter. Then he told me that he knew how difficult homelessness is, as he was once homeless himself, and was able to get back on his feet after a stay at our Siena House shelter. 


His words stuck with me as we moved on to check the corner diner. When we entered, there was one cook, one waitress and one customer at the lunch counter. We explained what we were doing and asked if anyone in the area was experiencing homelessness. The man at the counter, eating scrambled eggs and bacon, stated that he was homeless over seven years ago. Just like the man at the gas station, he told his story about how he was able to get his life on track after a stay at Siena House. He talked about his current job as a truck driver, and with a smile and a sense of pride, he told us that he now owned his own home.


When we left the diner, I was still processing this information and wondering just how many lives we had touched over the years. Our next stop was the emergency room at Waukesha Memorial Hospital, where I met a nurse at the front door and asked if there was anyone at the hospital that needed a warm place to stay.  She stated that this evening there was not, but that hospital staff appreciates the fact that they can call Hebron House when they have a patient who needs somewhere to go.  As I turned to leave, a man in a wheelchair stopped me. He had overheard my conversation with the nurse and wanted to thank me, telling me that he too was once a guest at Siena House. 


Our final stop to search for people in need of shelter was through Frame Park and along the riverfront. Hearing my boots crunching on the ice, I looked down and saw footprints in the snow.  I followed them to see if there was someone at the end of the prints, but there was no one.  Even though I felt relief at not finding someone outside in the brutal winter, I wondered where that person had gone, and it made me realize I will never look at footprints in the snow the same.   


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