It doesn't take long for Sgt. Grant Snyder to spot those wholly unprepared for the bitter cold.

They shiver at bus stops and huddle under store awnings. They have hooded sweatshirts, but no coats. They don't have anywhere to go.

"You can just tell suffering when you see it," said Snyder, who's been traveling to homeless hot spots after dark for the past week. "The last two nights, it's been daunting."

From the back of his off-road vehicle, the Minneapolis police veteran doles out hats, gloves and blankets to those in need. He approaches each person like an old friend, often leaning in for a hug. "Where are you sleeping tonight?" he gently asks.

Many wandering the downtown streets know him by name, but simply call him Sarge.

On Tuesday night, as windchills reached dangerously low temperatures of 50 below, Snyder went searching for the less fortunate.

A woman and a child wearing light jackets and sneakers approached him outside Target, where he'd stopped to do welfare checks. Her 10-year-old nephew's small hands were red from the stinging cold. "You got any gloves?" she inquired.

Snyder smiled and helped the boy try on a pair — albeit a few sizes too big — then handed him a cup of hot cocoa.

Over a 48-hour stretch, Snyder gave away more than 100 pairs of donated hats and gloves.

"It's what we should've been doing all along," said Snyder, the Police Department's homeless liaison. "This is an opportunity to serve the community in a way that doesn't involve handcuffs."

Long-term, he hopes the outreach efforts will help build relationships with people who are traditionally distrustful of law enforcement. It's part of the reason he rides around in a souped-up Polaris rather than a squad car.

Snyder says he doesn't want to risk intimidating people. "We're not interested in handing out citations or criminalizing homelessness," he said, adding that those misdemeanors can be counterproductive by limiting housing options.

A number of Twin Cities shelters announced they would remain open around the clock this week, but advocates say the shelter system is insufficient to house everyone who needs it.

That means that once businesses close for the evening, the homeless are forced to wander from place to place in an effort to stay warm.

Others hunker down. Late Tuesday, Snyder found a man sleeping under a pile of blankets on the sidewalk near Hwy. 55. His fingertips were discolored and in the beginning stages of frostbite, yet he refused to go to a shelter. Snyder eventually called for a transport to HCMC for medical assistance. "It's heartbreaking to make those calls," he said.

John Steger, senior pastor at Grace in the City church, partners with Snyder to deliver sandwiches and clothing to the homeless.

Together, they helped bundle up Billy Townsend, who was pushing a walker across Nicollet Mall — intending to seek refuge inside Target until closing time. He gratefully accepted a scarf before pushing on.

As Townsend crossed the street, he looked back to call: "God bless you."

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648