Caring for homeless in the cold

Dec. 8, 2014, 8:07 p.m. | By Zewde Ingram | 7 years, 12 months ago

Ensuring everyone is warm in the heart of the cold

The polar vortex—responsible for record low temperatures, massive snowfall and 13 days off from school last year—is set to bring a similar winter this year. While most of us are able to avoid the cold within the confines of our own homes and relish the warmth of indoor heating systems, the 610,042 homeless people in the United States are not so lucky.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, every year approximately 700 homeless people die from hypothermia; and frostbite is also a concern. In the D.C. metropolitan area, where homelessness is rampant, two homeless people died during the heart of the polar vortex not far from the White House. It is important that throughout the nation we ensure that all homeless people are protected from the elements and have a warm place to stay while the polar vortex approaches.

Although there are many homeless shelters where people can spend the night, not all homeless individuals have a place to stay. Many have an aversion to shelters because they hate the crowding, are afraid their possessions will be stolen or fear they will have nowhere to store their possessions or house their pet. It is also true that when dangerous weather rolls in, many are unaware of the hypothermia alerts issued by local governments. In Montgomery County there are 1,004 homeless people and 13.2 percent of them remain unsheltered. Many of these unsheltered individuals do not have a place to stay because numerous shelters are over capacity, they do not meet the criteria on shelter applications or their mental illnesses prevent them from taking initiative to find shelter. Nationwide, 40 percent of homeless men have served in the U.S. armed forces and many suffer from mental illnesses such as Post-Traumatic Stress disorder. Also, many homeless women are previous victims of domestic abuse. Children also account for 39 percent of the homeless population. Many of the homeless do not have the support or ability to protect themselves which accounts for why many are unable to find shelter.

In D.C., whenever a hypothermia alert is issued the city is required to provide shelter for any homeless resident who wants it. In Montgomery County last January, shelters were temporarily open all day and overflow space was lined up. The plan must be extended to include most of the hypothermia season in order to be effective in providing homeless with a warm place to wait out the cold. Currently, Montgomery County's department of Health and Humans Services partners with many nonprofit organizations such as the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless to provide assistance to the homeless and this year aims to ensure all homeless have shelter this winter.

Throughout the country, including the D.C. metropolitan area, charities and local governments open emergency shelters and send out mobile teams to deliver socks, blankets and hats. It would be useful if these mobile teams could also be used to transport homeless individuals and families to shelters as well. These mobile units could be a crucial tool in saving lives by identifying those that are homeless and then transporting them to a safe place. Another common reason for why many homeless people are unsheltered is because of the difficulty of not only finding shelters, but also getting to those shelters. These mobile units could solve this issue and possibly save many homeless from a torturous day in the cold.
It is important to recognize that homelessness is not a choice. No child grows up wanting to live on the streets prone to disease, violence and humiliation. Many of the homeless suffer from addiction disorders and mental illness. Helping the homeless is necessary. It is our duty to be their protectors and ensure that during the storm, there will always be a warm place to stay.

Tags: Polar vortex homeless

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