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Winter not emergency shelter’s busiest time, director says

By Kristina Jackson

Despite the frigid temperatures recently, the Manhattan Emergency Shelter still has room for those in need of shelter.

In fact, the dead of winter is not typically their busiest time, according to Executive Director Emily Wagner.

That’s largely because of Westar Energy’s cold-weather policy, which is in effect from Nov. 1 to March 31, prohibits the disconnection of electricity when National Weather Service forecasts temperatures below 35 degrees. This creates a rise in check-ins at the shelter when the rule goes out of effect.

“The biggest time for us is right before the cold weather rule goes into effect and as soon as it stops,” Wagner said. “As long as people still have utilities, we don’t seem to have people come in as often.”

This trend might also be because people are more mobile during the warmer months and are more likely to be moving from place to place seeking shelter.

“It’s easier to get around when the weather’s warmer, so there’s more transience,” Wagner said.

Wagner said the other factor she and her staff have identified is that landlords and family just tend to be more forgiving during the deep cold.

“We’ll have people check in and February and March and they’re three months behind on their rent, and the landlords haven’t even started the eviction process,” she said.

The shelter does have a plan in place for the cold months and any potential increased demand.

Staff members at the shelter contact Wagner if someone wants to check in on a night when the shelter is full. Wagner and her staff then assess the person for medical needs, such as frostbite, to see if the person might need to go to the hospital. If that’s not the case, the next step is to see if any space can be made in existing rooms. For example, staff might move a family to a smaller room to open up an extra bed. If that is not possible, Wagner said staff members work with a few area churches to coordinate a hotel stay.

Fortunately for the shelter, Wagner said, staff members did not have to set the plan in action during the extreme cold. She said that although several of the shelter’s beds are filled, the shelter is not at capacity and is not turning people away.

“I called the staff to make sure a plan was in place, but we didn’t even reach capacity.”

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