What Happens to People Who Are Homeless in This Frigid Weather?

By Carolyn Burstein
January 25, 2014

As I checked my coat, warm hat, heavy boots, scarf and gloves early one dark morning on the way to NETWORK in sub-freezing temperatures, my thoughts turned to people who are experiencing poverty, those viscerally impacted by this frigid weather, and wondered how they coped. Since I’ve volunteered about 20 hours each week at various homeless shelters (Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless, better known as AACH, in Arlington; N Street Village and Bethany in D.C.; and Carpenter’s Shelter and David’s Place in Alexandria) in our area for the past 9 ½ years, my thoughts are more than mere speculation.

When I first started volunteering, I was concerned that everyone had a warm coat. People gave generously, so our donations in that area of clothing were usually ample. We even staged a special “Coat Day” a la fashion show at Bethany (part of N Street Village) in late fall each year. And hats and scarves, many hand-knitted or crocheted, did not seem to be problematic. But warm gloves and boots, nearly everywhere, have always been in great demand in seasons with plenty of snow, ice and storms, like the present winter, and never seem to be sufficient, despite special drives to collect them. As a consequence, the hands and feet of people who are homeless, suffer more than their share of the onslaught of the freezing temperatures.

Have you ever seen the hands or feet of someone who is homeless? Yes, they are red, chapped, scaly, callused, and in general, a sorry mess – and this is apart from any major problems with these extremities. Their hands and feet in this wintry wallop take a beating, which prompted me on occasion to bring hand and feet creams containing shea butter to the shelters in the winter time. Of course, my supplies were never sufficient and I always noticed an uptick in the inquiries, especially at the drop-in centers for those who lived on the streets – Bethany and David’s Place – for body lotions and hand creams as the weather became colder. Visitors to these centers, most of whom have jobs, usually part-time, are no different than the rest of us when it comes to seeking protection for their raw skin.

One basic principle I learned at the shelters is that clean clothes are not only hygienic, but also an aid to staying warm. Garments matted with dirt or grime, of which I saw plenty, lose insulation. At David’s Place, one of my responsibilities was to assist guests with their laundry. Once I learned about the connection between clean clothes and warmth, as each winter approached, I took on this task as a “happy obligation,” and so did most of the people who spent time there.

The Washington, D.C. region, where I live, does not begin to compare on the index of cold weather to the areas of the North – New York, Boston and the New England area, Detroit (my hometown), Chicago, Minnesota and the Great Plains states, etc. According to meteorologists, the polar vortex descended from the North in early January to blanket much of the country in bitter cold, harsh winds and “tons” of snow that even the North is singularly unused to dealing with. Lately, we’ve been experiencing the usual (or unusual, depending on the precise geographic area) January blast of bone-chilling winter air accompanied by more snow and ice.

Hypothermia Shelters during the Winter

Imagine struggling to survive outside in “Siberian Express” conditions (as some have referred to this January). For people already living on the margins, severe cold poses a threat to their very lives. Exposed skin risks frostbite, gangrene and severe infection, even the more serious condition of hypothermia. But aren’t there hypothermia shelters open from November through March? – you may ask. Yes, in many areas of the country, including my own. However, these shelters are normally open from 7:00 pm to 7:00 am, after which these vulnerable people are exposed to frostbite and hypothermia if they can’t find an indoor venue that accepts them.

Some of these shelters stay open during part of an especially frigid day, though not all do. Some cities have warming centers. However, many hypothermia shelters are not people-friendly; indeed, many are inhospitable or downright dangerous. Theft, sexual assault and other abuses are commonplace in many shelters. Drugs and violence are major problems. Bedbugs and other parasites are also prevalent. They infest bedrolls, backpacks, clothes and other possessions. No matter how well shelters are maintained, parasite infestation is high, as I can attest firsthand. All the organizations where I volunteered, despite their many efforts at cleanliness and their zeal in frequent spraying, suffered from the problem of parasites, although not from the other abuses I noted.

Hypothermia centers, including churches, have only a finite amount of space. Once their quota is reached, they close for the night, and those who have been turned away are without shelter in life-threatening cold and often, blizzard-like conditions. Many, as a consequence, ride the various transit systems all night to stay warm.

Others refuse to go to hypothermia shelters because of bedbugs, either because they are fearful of never ridding themselves of the parasites or because they are allergic and have broken out in hives or other rashes previously and itch uncontrollably. Others refuse shelter on dreadfully cold nights because they fear the often dangerous conditions. In both cases, women predominate.

Children and Families in Homeless Shelters

The most heart-wrenching stories of people in shelters are the children. Their fathers are often in jail or are not part of their lives. They come to shelters with their mothers and, if they are lucky, other siblings with whom they can become involved in playful activities. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, family separation in U.S. shelters is common. In about 55% of cities recently surveyed, families may have to break up to be sheltered, most often restricting access to fathers and older boys. It’s a bitter choice for many families on freezing nights. This was true for one of the shelters where I volunteered, but not true for the others.

Another tough choice, and one that has resulted in some choosing below-freezing temperatures rather than shelter, arises from policies restricting pets at shelters. Because many people experiencing homelessness rely on their dogs or cats for their psychological health or physical safety, many don’t see the benefit of separating from their pets for housing in shelters that don’t allow pets. None of the shelters where I volunteered allowed pets, although I’ve never been aware of people having to make the choice between pets and shelter. However, those I’ve gotten to know at the shelters have indicated that sometimes the pet issue has been a problem for some of their friends.

In my experience, the children who were the most uneasy living in a shelter were the teenagers. One of my responsibilities at AACH was tutoring children who needed extra assistance with their schoolwork, and many of these kids were teenagers. After gaining their confidence, I learned from the kids themselves that living in a shelter was the most embarrassing experience in their lives. And, they would “never in a million years” let any of their school friends know of their situation. This admission explained why they so frequently scurried up the stairs after school to the rooms they shared with their families without even greeting those of us in the room they passed.

 Deaths Due to Cold Weather

Even before the record cold descended upon the country, the winter was taking a deadly toll on the most vulnerable, even in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, not only one of the wealthiest in the country, but one place that rarely gets below freezing and therefore, has few hypothermia shelters. Yet, in December, when temperatures dipped below freezing, seven homeless men died from hypothermia in separate incidents, according to the ThinkProgress website. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, approximately 700 of the 600,000+ people who are homeless die from hypothermia every year. Those deaths tend to occur along the East Coast and in the Midwest, and are, indeed, sad.

Causes of Homelessness

The causes of homelessness are multiple:

  • Evictions from and foreclosures of rentals and homes
  • Loss of hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units across the country
  • Low-wage jobs; part-time work with inconsistent hours, (often complicated by a lack of child care opportunities) and, thus, being unable to afford rent
  • Unemployment or loss of long-term unemployment benefits (more than 3 1/2 million unemployed will lose the benefits during 2014 — if unemployment insurance is not extended — which could add many to the homeless contingent)
  • Cuts to HUD’s 2014 budget, especially in the areas of Section 8 vouchers and public housing. However, HUD’s housing budget for lower-income people has been cut over decades, causing increased hardship among a growing number of people who can’t afford rent, especially in high-priced areas
  • Failure of local jurisdictions to build, rent or locate affordable housing for low-income residents
  • Monetary and fiscal policies for the past decades favoring wealthy elites, thus intensifying income inequality
  • Fewer programs to assist those who abuse drugs or alcohol due to local, state and federal budget cuts
  • Failure of jurisdictions to develop group homes for people with mental illness after closing institutions where they resided –not least being the strength of NIMBY

Substandard Housing and the Effects of the Cold

Many people experiencing homelessness have previously lived in substandard housing, where the hazards of cold temperatures constitute a public health problem, according to the American Public Health Association (APHA). As a volunteer, I have heard numerous stories of their former deteriorated, roach-infested apartments with inadequate kitchen and moldy bath facilities, leaky faucets and water intrusion. Sometimes I wondered if they were not better off homeless, though I knew deep down they were not.

Freezing temperatures and damp conditions, says APHA, are associated with a wide range of health conditions in substandard housing, including respiratory infections, asthma, chronic illnesses and mental disorders. Even a deviation of indoor temperature beyond a relatively narrow range has been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. And many of these houses lack adequate insulation and suffer from water intrusion. Such housing — damp, cold, and moldy — is associated with chronic respiratory symptoms because it provides a nurturing environment for mites, roaches, respiratory viruses and molds. Living in cold housing is often due to a failure to gain assistance, even if qualified, from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). According to the Chicago Reporter, LIHEAP funding has fallen 17% in just the past three years, leaving 1.5 million households stuck with energy bills they can’t afford.

What Can Be Done?

Many decentralized, grassroots activist groups, especially in urban areas, are organizing to provide additional assistance to people who are homeless and others in need this winter. Many have been using the hashtag,#OpSafeWinter and other networks to collect relevant information about hypothermia and warming centers, shelters, food and supplies and blasting it out through online social media to those in need.

Although there are many activist groups and advocates who play a large role in serving people who are homeless and near-homeless, and many advocates who lobby or otherwise work to change one or more aspects of the causes of homelessness listed above, no group can replace the government when it comes to assisting the vulnerable. The dimensions of the problem are not only too large, but just this week, Pope Francis, in his message to the World Economic Forum in Davos, reminded us that governments have a responsibility for the “frail, weak and vulnerable.” He said that “too many men and women still experience the dramatic consequences of daily insecurity” and need the assistance of government. The Pope’s words certainly reminded me of my own responsibility as an advocate for people who are homeless and in poverty that in working for the common good one must never overlook the dignity of the human person, that quiet dignity, regardless of the exterior, of those who, unfortunately, may be homeless now.

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