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Winter is Coming… A Devastating Reality for the Homeless

For the homeless, it is no winter wonderland.

The first yellow leaf announces the coming of fall, and winter; and with it, the holiday season. Families gather together to celebrate what they are thankful for, their beliefs, and family heritage. It is the time for hot chocolate and cozy blankets, perfect to stay inside…for those who have a home.

But for the homeless, fall and winter cause anxiety. Many will scramble to find decent gently used coats and newspaper to stay warm. Some may receive the help of the community and their families to battle the weather. But some of our most vulnerable, single homeless adults may not have a support system. Even some families with children find themselves exposed to the elements and staying outside. Those who sleep outdoors in the cold, face the risk of dehydration, frostbite, and/or hypothermia.

Hypothermia is a real concern for those not living in the comfort of a warm home, and if exposed to extreme weather, our bodies’ temperature may drop below 95 F and could require immediate emergency attention. As winter approaches, this is a real fear for many homeless individuals and families. Resisting the harsh weather, without a home and nowhere to go, is nearly impossible. The Center for the Disease Control and Prevention reported that from 1999 to 2011, a total of 16,911 deaths in the United States, an average of 1,301 per year, were associated with exposure to excessive, natural cold. The highest yearly total of hypothermia-related deaths (1,536) was in 2010. Approximately 67% of hypothermia-related deaths were among males.[1]

This not only affects the homeless, but it also impacts the lives of low income families and individuals with scarce resources. Many people living indoors may still find themselves suffering from extreme cold weather conditions due to lack of proper heat or electricity. Lack of access to health care or a proper diet may also increase the chances of sickness. All of these factors raise concerns in our community, as we strive to serve those who are most vulnerable.

For a homeless person, winter is anything but magical. The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress reported in January, that 564,708 individuals and families were homeless on a given night. Of that number, 31% were counted as unsheltered.[2] Life-threatening hypothermia can set in between 32 F – 50 F, so preparedness for the winter is something we take seriously for our sheltered and unsheltered clients. In addition to operating with the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care (GRCoC) to not only provide shelter, but housing to those suffering from homelessness, the City of Richmond provides great assistance through the operation of their cold weather, overflow shelter. This shelter opens when the weather forecast anticipates temperatures below 40 F. Novemeber 14th was the facilitiy’s first day in operation for the season. The shelter is located in the City’s Public Safety Building at 505 North 9th Street. It opens each evening at 7 p.m. and closes the following morning at 6 a.m. Those facing homelessness who are in need of overnight shelter are asked to report to the Continuum’s Homeless Point of Entry (HPE) at Commonwealth Catholic Charities during their operational hours. Homeless Point of Entry is located at 511 West Grace Street and is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Of course, aside from shelter, these individuals and families need housing and community support. Come together during this time and assist agencies working to meet those needs. Yes, it sounds quite challenging, and maybe disheartening- but this season has great things to offer, to make up for the freezing weather. For example, here at HomeAgain, we are working with our amazing community supporters and volunteers to bring some of the magic and joy of the holidays to our residents facing homelessness. We believe that with each passing year, we are getting one step closer to no one sleeping outside during the cold season. What better time than the holiday season to start reaching for that goal? Ask us how you can volunteer and support our programs, and if you know of anyone suffering from homelessness, please refer them to HPE and provide them with their phone number (804) 648-4177. Let us spread the joy this holiday season with those who need it the most, by helping them sleep in a warm and safe space!

[1] http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6151a6.htm
[2] https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/2015-AHAR-Part-1.pdf