Homeless shelters mean difference between life and death

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Riga's network of night shelters for the homeless are gearing up for the winter season when they are all that stand between dozens of rough-sleepers and the prospect of freezing to death in a Baltic winter, reports Latvian Radio's Vita Anstrate. 

Currently, ambulance crews receive around five calls a week relating to people freezing on the streets at night, but with the rapid approach of winter, that number is expected to increase so Riga's night shelters are open for business.

Seven shelters opened from October 1, providing 270 beds each night. However, that number will increase to more than 600 when the shelters are fully operational this winter said the Riga City Council Welfare Department spokeswoman Lita Brice

Currently, homeless night shelters can operate from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. only, but when temperatures drop below -10C or wind picks up to more than 10 meters per second, they are allowed to operate around the clock.

The "Gaiziņš" shelter located in the city center has capacity of up to 85, with 82 places already occupied. One of those staying is Arnis who says he was made homeless after losing his job and quickly learned how hard it was to be on the streets in winter.

"You have to keep walking, see. Otherwise, what can you do? You try to find somewhere warm to sleep, but where can you sleep? Find a stairwell, something like that," Arnis says.

Shelters Director Ilona Luste says staff have prepared for situations when the air temperature becomes colder and will have to work round the clock. It will significantly increase the number of people who want to stay warm indoors, though they are committed to not turning people away even when all beds are filled.

"No, we will not refuse anyone. We've talked about how to provide places. So, those who are drunk, they spend the night on a mattress on the floor. Persons who do not use alcohol, but need to stay in the shelter can have a bed, linen, all the extras they need," says Luste.

The first calls associated with hypothermia have already been received, ambulance service spokeswoman Inga Vitola says. She urges members of the public to keep an eye open for those less fortunate than themselves. 

"Given that this is the start of the cold-weather season start and soon it will be colder with snow, we shouldn't just pass by people we see fallen in the street or unconscious and unable to call for help themselves. If we don't help them, people can die," says Vitola.

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