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Helping Colorado homeless beat the deadly cold

6:38 PM, Dec 4, 2013   |    comments
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DENVER-The cold snap gripping Colorado brings the sort of temperatures that can kill people who get stuck outside overnight.

That's why shelters are in emergency mode right now. There's warm space for anybody who seeks it out this week, but not everybody knows it and a certain number won't take it even though it's there.

"I give it to 'em. Some people are tough, but you ain't tough 32 below zero," said Vernon Lewis, who considers refusing shelter an act of "arrogance."

He should know. Lewis used to refuse to go inside on the coldest nights.

"Everybody thinks it can't happen to me," Lewis said. "You know like when you're a child and you feel like you're immortal? A lot of people on the streets feel that way too."

The years made him wiser. He remembers one friend (he didn't want to give a name) who tried to drink away the cold.

"And when you lay down, you don't wake up," Lewis said. "That's basically what happened to him. Over the years I've seen several people either lose their lives or get frostbite and lose fingers and toes and digits and stuff."

We found Lewis sharing what he knows with Denver police officer Rob Parks, one of dozens of police and city workers looking for people at risk.

He seeks out the chronically homeless that he can find outside, a group that is defined by a prevalence of mental health issues and addiction to drugs and alcohol.

"Whatever [it] is that's going on with them that day, if they're in crisis and they're caught out, those are the ones that just can't seem to help themselves and so we're certainly looking for them," Parks said.

Still, Parks worries we're going to lose some people this week.

"I'm hoping that we don't. The reality is it's going be cold enough over the week that we might," Parks said. "If people aren't seeking shelter over the next couple of days there's a strong chance that we may have one or two or more that actually freeze on the street."

Parks patrols with his squad car along the South Platte River path and in alleys.

In one alleyway, he spotted a big pile of blankets, hoping there wasn't anybody underneath.

Upon inspection, it was an abandoned campsite.

"It's large enough to contain a person, so those are the items we definitely want to check," Parks said.

When he does find people, he makes sure they have a plan to stay warm.

"I'm just trying to make sure you've got somewhere safe and warm to be," Parks said, approaching a homeless man North of downtown Denver.

He chatted with the man to ensure he had a plan of where to go, which he did.

Parks knows some don't have much sympathy for people who can't or won't take help.

But police live by their code, and on the side of his car is the slogan "to serve and protect."

"The protection sometimes is protection from self," he said.

Which is why he'll spend this cold snap looking for as many of those people as he can find.

(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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