Homelessness and Housing contributing writer Darby Penney discusses the onset of winter weather and what many cities have instituted in response to tragic deaths from hypothermia and other cold-related conditions to temporarily enhance access to shelter when the temperature falls.
Living on the street can be daunting and dangerous at any time of the year, but in many parts of the country, the onset of winter weather can quickly make this a potentially lethal circumstance. In response to tragic deaths from hypothermia and other cold-related conditions, many cities have instituted Code Blue programs to temporarily enhance access to shelter when the temperature falls.
In New York City, for instance, the Department of Homeless Services initiates Code Blue when the temperature falls to 32 degrees or lower, or if there are sustained winds or periods of intense snowfall. While a Code Blue is in effect, twice the usual number of street outreach vans are deployed to help locate people in need and offer them rides to shelter, assess them for medical needs, and provide warm clothing and food. In addition, people may access any of the agency's shelters and drop-in centers without going through the usual intake process. Many cities have similar programs, although the instigating weather conditions, rules, and available services vary from place to place.
But some people do not live in places with Code Blue programs, or, for a variety of reasons, may choose not to come into shelter. In some localities, people who are under the influence are not welcome to enter shelters, even during emergency weather conditions. But across the country, homelessness service providers, volunteers, and generous citizens have come up with ways to help unsheltered people survive frigid temperatures.
In Buffalo, New York, volunteers Jesse and Kristen Dixon recently founded the Code Blue Relief Mission in October 2014 to collect and distribute blankets, coats, sleeping bags, and other winter gear to people living outside. The Dixons formerly volunteered with an organization that served a similar mission but closed down last year. Realizing that people experiencing homelessness in Buffalo would otherwise go without this service this winter, the couple rallied friends, family members, and community volunteers to make sure these needed supplies are collected and distributed. Inspired by his father, a Vietnam veteran, Jesse Dixon started volunteering in order to help veterans experiencing homelessness and felt that direct outreach to individuals living on the streets of Buffalo was the best way he and his family could help. Code Blue Relief Mission has a drop-off point at a parking garage near the stadium during every Buffalo Bills home game, which brings in much-needed clothing and gear. They also solicit donations from citizens, churches, and other organizations. The group collaborates with local homeless service providers, as well as volunteers, to locate people experiencing homelessness who could benefit from their services, and they distribute the donated supplies to people living on the streets, underpasses, and other outdoor locations during evenings and weekends. Kristen Dixon said, "For me, it's very personal; it warms my heart to be able to help somebody. Basically, you hand somebody a blanket and you might be changing their lives. You don't know their story or what they've been through, but you know at that moment you were able to help them."
Chris Krager, Executive Director of Samaritan House, a homeless shelter and transitional housing program in Kalispell, Montana, also believes in encouraging local people to reach out and offer to help their neighbors who are homeless during the winter. Samaritan House, located in Montana’s remote Flathead Valley, hosts a blog, Homeless in the Flathead, which mixes inspirational reflections, the stories of people who have experienced homelessness, and requests for specific items to be donated. “Every year around this time, I post an article on the blog asking people to be neighborly, to look out for their neighbors who are homeless and cold and to help them out,” said Krager. “If people feel uncomfortable approaching a homeless person, I ask them to let me know where I can find the person, and I’ll go talk to them myself.” He also knows from experience where many of the established camps are, and drops by to offer people access to Samaritan House. It helps to bring presents, he said, noting that he always brings a blanket, a coat, some socks, or similar items when trying to establish a rapport with an individual.
During the winter, Samaritan House uses roll-away beds to help accommodate more guests than usual, going from 62 beds to 99 beds, and is still within the fire code occupancy limits. Some people are reluctant to come in during the cold, Krager said, because they currently use drugs and alcohol (Samaritan House cannot accommodate people who are actively using). For people who remain outdoors in the Montana winter, said Krager, “what’s most important are just common sense things: warm gear like boots, coats, socks, hats, and gloves.” Offering these items to people in a spirit of genuine empathy, he believes, is a way anyone can “look out for their neighbor and help them out in a neighborly way.”
Samaritan House’s blog, Homeless in the Flatland, can be found at http://homelessintheflathead.blogspot.com/
Code Blue Relief Mission has a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Code-Blue-Relief-Mission/801651253229259
Information about the New York City Department of Homeless Services’ Code Blue program is at http://www.nyc.gov/html/dhs/html/communications/code-blue2014.shtml
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