Keeping the homeless safe in the cold

With record-breaking temperatures over the past week in Central Florida, dozens of news stories and possibly thousands of conversations have focused on those less fortunate, the people without a warm place to stay or sufficient clothing in the cold. Many have wondered where the homeless will find shelter during the freezing nighttime temperatures. Although the issue is not usually pertinent to Florida communities, even shelters in Central Florida (like the Coalition) saw individuals and families seeking shelter from the cold. And it’s not even snowing! (Can’t say that anymore, can we?)

The extremely cold Florida temperatures raise the question about the homeless in northern states. As strange as it may seem to Floridians, we know that in other states temperatures often drop below freezing – or even below zero – and stay there for days or weeks at a time. What should be done to protect the homeless in these frigid states?
National Coalition for the Homeless (no relationship to us) released a timely report last week that offers information on winter homeless services across the United States. The information for “Winter Homeless Services: Bringing Our Neighbors in from the Cold” was gathered from forty states and the District of Columbia, and urban, suburban and rural communities are all represented.
The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) report found:

• The homeless are at much greater risk for suffering from “exposure-related conditions” such as hypothermia and frostbite. This seems obvious considering many homeless individuals and families, even if they sleep in shelters each night, are left without shelter during the day.
• Forty-four percent of the United States homeless population is unsheltered. For this reason, hypothermia is described as a “leading, critical and preventable cause of injury and death among those experiencing or at-risk of homelessness.”
• Seven-hundred people, either currently experiencing homelessness or at-risk of homelessness, are killed from hypothermia each year in America. In fact, NCH explains that a total of 4,607 hypothermia-related deaths occurred in the United States between 1999 and 2002, with each state contributing at least one death. That includes the Sunshine State!
• The homeless are noted as three to six times more likely to become ill than people with homes. The tendency to become ill partially results from poor nutrition and lack of access to consistent healthcare but becomes more hazardous with exposure to the cold. This is particularly true since many homeless do not have sufficient warm clothing.

So what should be done about this? The below recommendations are taken directly from the verbiage in “Winter Homeless Services: Bringing
Our Neighbors in from the Cold:”

• Knowledge – Accurate and timely information can be life saving for people experiencing homelessness, while a lack of information can be damaging or deadly…Effective prevention strategies include a pre-approved plan for the gathering and dissemination of lifesaving information to all critical stakeholders, including those at risk on the streets. (The Coalition accomplishes this through media alerts and word-of-mouth.)
• Networking – In cold weather, local elected officials and decision-makers are a critical first step to preventing hypothermia. Those in need must receive clear, consistent and repeated messages about the signs, symptoms and consequences of hypothermia, as well as emergency services that are being made available for them. Furthermore, the general public wants and needs to know how to help those in danger of hypothermia and what responses are most appropriate.
• Temporary Seasonal Shelter and Outreach – Appropriate approaches to the level, design and schedule of prevention resources, shelter and outreach, are critical to an effective response. The level of response must be timely and measured against the imminent and emerging concern of injury and hypothermia…And, the schedule of emergency shelters and outreach services must be developed and available based solely on sound established prevention practices. (Read about “cold nights” at the Coalition)

This winter, even sunny Central Florida has become aware of the crucial need for “cold weather” services for the homeless and the less fortunate. The Coalition will continue to provide “cold night” shelter for the homeless in our area, and we hope that our community’s overwhelming response to the need for coats and blankets sparks a desire to offer aid for our neighbors in need all year long!