Woman sick with pneumonia and the flu buried under blankets last Thursday.
We are often asked how the homeless handle the cold. It's such a natural question during the winter as we get to curl up by the fire and turn up the heat. On really cold days, it's easy to think about people living on the street who have no such luxuries.
Today, I was out on the streets in the cold for about an hour, and when I went back inside, I couldn't feel my hands or feet. I can't imagine living outside as a way of life.
So how do the homeless handle the cold?
- Stay inside at a shelter. (Sounds simple and nice, huh? There's a catch. See more below.)
- Stay outside, preferably under an overpass or awning to protect yourself from rain/sleet/snow. (See more under Option 2 below.)
First, even if you stay inside at a shelter, you are outside between the hours of 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. or 4 p.m. So you must leave the shelter at the coldest time of the day and before the sun is up.
Second, if at 6 a.m. it is below 32 degrees outside, you can choose to stay inside. However, if you have a job, you do not have this option because you have to leave to get to work. But if you have a job, you still have to get back over to the shelter in the afternoon to get in line, so you will likely be outside for a few hours anyway.
Third, not everyone is permitted inside. You must have an I.D. to stay inside at most shelters. I.D.s easily get lost or stolen on the streets. Furthermore, if you have an active addiction that impairs your functioning in any noticeable way, you are not permitted to stay inside.
So, even if you stay inside at a shelter, if it is above 32 degrees at 6 a.m., you are outside in the cold for 8-10 hours a day.
"Tent city," where people live under the bridge in our neighborhood.
If either by choice or by necessity you stay outside, here's how you might handle the cold:
One, you might make a fire. Last week, when I was under the bridge in our neighborhood (known as "tent city"), people were bringing back firewood under the bridge to keep the fire they already had started going.
Two, individuals, churches, organizations, and groups donate warm items. Just last week, a local church donated heavy-duty gloves and beanies, and as we passed them out on Thursday, multiple people living under the bridge came to me without either gloves or hat on. Their hands were flaky and raw all over because of the intense cold and wind.
Three, many people have tents in which they sleep, and they try to collect as many blankets as possible to pile on at night. Someone last week said, "I've learned to never turn down a blanket. You never know when it's going to get really cold."
How You Can Help
No gift to someone who is homeless during the cold winter months is too small. If you clean out your drawers and have gloves, hats, long-sleeve shirts, sweatshirts, pants, warm socks, or anything else, keep them in your car and give them to whomever you see on the side of the road.
Or, do you have extra blankets you aren't using? Pass them out too!
Another idea: last week someone asked if I had hand or foot warmers. Throw a few of those in your car to hand out when you see someone in the cold.
Another view of "tent city."