It is never easy being homeless. According to a 2016 survey reported by Social Solutions, an estimated “564,708 people in the U.S. are homeless,” and of these homeless, “206,286 were people in families, 358,422 were individuals and a quarter of the entire group were children.”
On top of all the trials and tribulations people facing homelessness must deal with, during the winter months, the situation is especially bad, due to the risk of frostbite, illnesses associated with the cold, hypothermia and even seasonal depression. Below freezing temperatures like ones we have experienced recently, pose an imminent danger to the body when left exposed. According to Hope Mission, a Christian non-profit agency for the homeless, the cold lowers one’s immune system and thickens blood, increasing risk of infection or a heart attack. It is also not uncommon for frostbite-related amputations to occur.
In addition to frostbite, hypothermia–which can begin to set in in a body when temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit–is another reality for people facing homelessness in the winter. According to the National Health Care for The Homeless Coucil, even those who have shelter by tent or cardboard “are still susceptible to hypo- or hyperthermia, as well as associated maladies including frostbite…Those who are very young, old, malnourished or exhausted are at increased risk of serious health problems from exposure to temperature extremes.”
Another factor many people don’t think about regarding the homeless during the winter time is seasonal depression. Cold weather affects our mental state, and Seasonal Affective Disorder, which, according to Mayo Clinic website, “is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year.”
The condition, which is often experienced during the winter months, is a real phenomenon. The shorter, unbearably colder days and longer nights in the winter can have an effect on one’s mental state, and, along with being without shelter, can have a severe impact on the homeless. Depression during the winter months, according to Hope Mission, “can weaken someone’s will for self preservation.”
Along with the effects of poor health conditions facing the homeless during the winter, they are also affected by poor shelter conditions, which leads to many homeless to choose to brave the outside cold rather than shelters.
David Pirtle, a man who experienced homelessness due to schizophrenia, spoke to NPR’s Ari Shapiro in “Talk of the Nation,” and explained why this might occur. He spoke about, how, in many instances, shelters are simply just overcrowded. An overcrowded shelter then, Pirtle explained, leads to stealing, poor sanitation conditions and a clash of personalities among the homeless people packed together in the shelter. “You have a lot of people with a lot of problems,” said Pirtle, “and so when you cram them all together, you just have one big problem. That’s why I’m a big fan of smaller, scattered-sized shelters, where people can get more focus on what they need to get help.”
Since winter is such a dangerous time for people facing homelessness, it is important to raise awareness for the various ways in which one can help. One of the biggest dangers facing the homeless during the winter is the cold temperature, therefore donating items such as old coats, scarves, hats, gloves and thick warm blankets can make a significant impact.
In addition to donating warm clothes and food, volunteering is another way to help out the homeless during the winter months. Many shelters during the cold months face overcrowding. With overcrowding, workers at shelters are not as able to give the special help they need to each person they encounter. Volunteering at shelters can make it easier for the staff to assist more homeless people and helps them give more proper care.