The dictionary defines frostbite as an “injury to body tissues caused by exposure to extreme cold, typically affecting the nose, fingers, or toes and sometimes resulting in gangrene.” I ran into my friend Bill in front of the library. He was sitting next to a fire he had created with avocado oil, woodchips, and rubbing alcohol. He had just been released from the hospital with frostbite and could barely walk. In a humane society, he would be able to heal and recover in a facility that offered respite care. In Seattle, because he is poor and homeless, he is left to figure out how to keep his toes while sleeping outside. Bill got frostbite from being outside. He fell asleep outside and woke up ten hours later in eighteen-degree weather. Unable to move and frozen to a bench, a nearby business owner heard Bill’s screams and called 911. Pouring boiling water on his back and legs, it took the fire department thirty-five minutes to get him unstuck. They took him to the emergency room where they had to soak his feet in boiling water to get his boots off.
Bill feels grateful that he was able to keep his toes. While were talking, other homeless men stop by and share horror stories of friends dying from exposure. I talk about George who had both of his legs amputated a few years ago from frostbite. Jerry comes by with a box of fried chicken and offers everyone a piece. He includes me in the street community communion table and offers me a drumstick. It is always nice to be invited. Bill tells me about a couple in the north end of the city that has set up a dozen food pantries around their neighborhood. People experiencing food insecurity are able to take what they need. I talk with Rodger who is seventy and dying of throat cancer. His speaking voice is a low gravely whisper. He shares with me about the violence of his childhood and his belief in living while we still can. He isn’t going to spend his last days in institutions that continue to traumatize him.
Later that night I meet another man with frostbite. I am in the middle of a prayer time at a church that hosts an emergency winter shelter when, a taxicab pulls up and drops off a man in a wheelchair. It’s raining and the shelter doesn’t open for two hours. The hospital paid one hundred and Ninety dollars for the cab ride. He was assured that there was a bed for him at the shelter. The shelter staff had no idea that he was coming and was at full capacity. After some creative thinking, the shelter figured out a way to have him stay the night. We made shelter arrangements for the following night through Operation Nightwatch and were able to eliminate an extra bus trip for our new friend. Hopefully he will be able to keep his toes.