Icy Poland targets homeless as death toll rises

Street brazier in Warsaw, 1 Feb 12 Public braziers provide some comfort for freezing residents of Warsaw

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If you've been past a bus stop or train station in Poland this past week you're likely to have seen a strange sight - small crowds of people standing in triangles with outstretched hands, amid wreaths of smoke.

They are standing around coal braziers - metal grates in the shape of a litter bin on a stand filled with coking coal - erected by the authorities to provide warmth during the current cold snap.

They stand in a triangle because protective metal barriers enclose the braziers so no one gets burned - leading some to complain they cannot get close enough to the heat.

A group of young people commandeered one coal brazier in Warsaw on Thursday for an impromptu barbecue, offering sausages to passers-by at two zloty (£0.40; $0.63) each.

Temperatures fell to minus 34C overnight in parts of the country, causing schools to close and railway lines to crack, leaving commuters freezing on platforms.

The country's leading daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, this morning printed a photograph of a man walking his dog over the frozen Baltic Sea.

Mounting death toll

It is so cold there is ice on the inside windows of my car. I also have to get into it through the passenger side because the other door has frozen stuck.

Homeless shelter in underground heating duct, Warsaw, 2 Feb 12 Some of Warsaw's homeless get warm in the underground heating network

But these are just trivial matters. Tragically the freeze has killed 75 people so far this winter, with 17 deaths from exposure in the last 48 hours.

Relatively few victims of Polish winters die in their own homes.

According to the police, most victims are homeless people. So they have launched a "Don't be indifferent" advertising campaign, urging people to report sightings of people sleeping in train stations or garden allotment sheds, so they can be offered a bed in a shelter.

Every day police patrol locations that homeless people are known to frequent, and offer them hot soup.

Alcohol problem

The problem is not a lack of beds in the shelters. It is that there is a strict ban on drinking alcohol there. Many of the victims had been drinking, police say, before passing out and succumbing to exposure.

Dealing with winter deaths in Poland is not just an issue of how the state treats its homeless people; it's also an issue of how it deals with alcoholism, especially among the unemployed homeless.

Depressingly these casualty figures are not unusual. Last winter 212 people died from hypothermia. A staggering 134 people died in December 2010 alone.

And these figures typically do not include other winter-related deaths.

At least nine people have died in the past week after falling through ice on frozen lakes. On Thursday police recovered the bodies of two men who had been ice-fishing - where a circular hole is cut from the ice to enable a hooked line to be dropped through.

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