MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner is reporting its first probable hypothermia death of the season after a 72-year-old man, believed to be experiencing homelessness, was found dead.
The ME says he was found near the 700 block of Old World Third, which is near Wisconsin Avenue. It’s the first hypothermia death of the winter season after a 57-year-old man died of hypothermia in April of 2021.
“It’s very dangerous,” Pastor James West, Executive Director of Repairers of the Breach said. “You have some people who sleep under the bridge. They layer themselves with garbage bags and they think they can make it. But the weather can shift in the middle of the night and you go to sleep and don’t wake up.”
West’s non-profit runs a day-time shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Thanksgiving night, they had their doors open for the first night of the season, since the temperature dipped below 20 degrees.
“We’re in Milwaukee and the weather becomes dangerous,” West said. “For those without a foundation of a home, they are vulnerable. They’re at risk.”
Since 2015, 10 people who died of hypothermia in Milwaukee County were considered homeless. Experts say most hypothermia cases happen in air temperatures from 30 to 50 degrees. Temperatures on the night of Thanksgiving hit a low of 19 degrees.
“This time of year is the most challenging,” West said.
Since 2015, the number of hypothermia deaths has shown an increase, peaking each of the last two years. Should this latest cause death ultimately be ruled hypothermia, it would be the eighth of 2021.
“I think about that every day, all day,” Andrae Harris said. “When I used to leave from here, I didn’t have no where to go.”
Harris formerly experienced homelessness. He would frequent Repairers of the Breach to get out of the cold. Finding warmth was all he could focus on to survive.
“It’s dangerous out here in the cold for anybody, myself included,” Harris said. “It don’t matter how many clothes you have on, you’ll still be cold. You can die out here in this type of weather.”
Overall though, homelessness has dropped more than 25 percent statewide, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. However, West says he sees the need every day on Milwaukee streets.
“What we do is very necessary,” West said. “Sometimes this kind of work can be overwhelming, but when you realize you’re saving lives, it’s worth the while.”
If you know someone experiencing homelessness, have them call 2-1-1 to locate a warming shelter they can go to and get out of the cold.