Column: Homeless population disregarded during cold crisis
Last week during an Arctic outbreak, the United States hit subzero temperatures, and forecasters observed “life-threatening wind-chills”.
In Chicago, a near record low temperature of -21 degrees Fahrenheit and a wind chill of -51 were linked to multiple deaths across the state, many the result of collisions. Such temperatures cause frostbite in up to five minutes. Around -20 F, the risk of hypothermia is within thirty minutes. Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, urged citizens indoors. However, Governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin expressed a lack of concern, noting that closing schools and roadways were sending “messages to our young people that if life is hard you can curl up in the fetal position somewhere.”
Though admitting his statement merely facetious, the humor is not reached by the population who spend the winter outdoors, curled in for heat: the homeless.
The New York Coalition for the Homeless estimates 63,000 homeless dwelling in shelters. This does not account those on the streets and in shared living spaces. The NCH remarks that the city grossly underestimates the number of homeless on the streets, possibly reaching into the thousands.
Multiple exposure related deaths were recorded in the Midwest as of January 31, courtesy of The Washington Post. How many homeless deaths are unaccounted for?
The NCH report estimates 700 homeless people are killed in the United States from hypothermia, frostbite and other exposure related illnesses. Those most susceptible are the elderly and children. Of the total homeless population, around 31 percent are elderly. Necessary winter clothing is often unavailable.
Shelters often operate with time cut-offs, rendering many homeless on the streets. Tents cannot be considered protection against frigid temperatures. In a report from Time, many homeless have remarked that the slightest protection helps. Time also notes that police have been reported to clear tents from construction areas, leaving less available spaces to create shelter.
Shelters and warming centers often enforce alcohol and drug-use restrictions. The NCH reports 38 percent of homeless are dependent upon alcohol and 26 percent upon drug abuse. The Center for Disease Control and Protection states the risk of hypothermia is increased among alcohol and drug abusers, substance abuse often incapacitates the user to seek help or acknowledge present dangers. Many homeless are also malnourished and facing chronic illnesses due to overexposure. Therefore, homelessness causes large numbers of hypothermia related deaths.
According to the NCH, sudden influxes of people escaping the weather leaves shelter and warming center staff unable to accommodate every need. Many are turned away and some choose not to seek aid from shelters for fear of their safety, belongings, or shelter restrictions. Certain shelters cannot accommodate families due to single-sex restrictions, many homeless cannot travel to distant shelters and some cannot pass enforced sobriety testing. Shelters throughout the night ensure safety for a few hours, however, time restrictions force homeless to leave early in the morning when the air is still frigid, leaving individuals in the elements until the shelters open in the evening.
The NCH states this is preventable through funding and accommodations. Federal housing, permanent housing residences, and joint facilities help combat mental illness and substance abuse. All of which are cost-effective, proven solutions to prevent deaths in the homeless community.
Such institutions are proven effective, however, lack of funding and awareness is a larger obstacle. With the stigmatization surrounding the homeless community, awareness and empathy are a shortcoming. With the swaths of coverage surrounding the life-threatening temperatures outdoors, consider those who cannot find shelter.
According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, in South Carolina there are 3,916 homeless families and 14,140 homeless students. Of that number of students, there are about 1,006 living unsheltered across the state. Sherida Stroman, homeless liaison for the Aiken County Public School District, reports that there is a total of 37 homeless students as of late 2017.
Though the winters in South Carolina hardly compare to the winters observed in the North and Midwest, South Carolina consistently sees freezing temperatures (on average: 30-38 F) at night. As previously stated, chronic exposure to these temperatures lead to hypothermia related illnesses, ultimately leading to fatal complications. While resources are available, not all can readily receive aid, especially students. Distances, money, and education take priority over comfort and safety. Unfortunately, the cost of comfort and safety, i.e. risking freezing temperatures over spending money on shelter, gas or falling deeper into student debt, reap devastating consequences.
To support the local homeless population and shelters, below links are provided:
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