Voices from the Field Blog: Winter Weather Preparations for Those Living Unsheltered

by Darby Penney
November 14, 2014

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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

Interested in being an HRC Guest Blogger? Email us at HomelessPrograms@samhsa.hhs.gov.

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Category: General | Guest Entry

Voices From the Field: Bearing Witness to Self-Sufficiency

by Kevin Lilly
September 24, 2013

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Youth homelessness is a major problem. There are many young people on the street on a given night with nowhere to go and no access to adequate shelter. That being said, with every social injustice in the world today, you have people who work tirelessly to fight for change. These activists don’t do this for any attention or reward, but because they want to see a difference and see an eventual end to a perpetual problem.  Bridge over Troubled Water (BOTW) is an organization that since its inception in the 1970’s has helped over 80,000 homeless and runaway youth out of the grips of poverty and into self-sufficiency. This shelter may look like an ordinary cozy house like its neighbors on the street, but the power within is something that you just need to visit for yourself to experience.

One of the case managers, Theresa Heisler known by everyone as “Terri”, a 23-year veteran, was gracious enough to give me a tour of the shelter. At this particular location, they deal with four primary groups of young adults: males, females, runaways, and young mothers with children. Each group has their own housing area, but they come together for community dinners and social events. When I arrived, I spent most of my time in the young mothers building. During the tour, I noticed the housing itself is well kept. Fridges are filled with healthy choices, and the mothers have a monthly trip to BJ’s, a wholesale warehouse grocery and retail store. The bedrooms are tidy and the young people are encouraged to keep the house clean and organized. I could go on about the housing itself, but the power of this shelter isn’t so much in the housing as much as it is the people in it.

These mothers are nothing short of amazing young women. As a young man I can’t imagine all the work that goes into raising a child. These young women also work (some working multiple jobs) and complete assigned house tasks and attend classes. It’s inspiring to hear their stories of survival to make it to where they are today. A few stories Terri told me were tough to hear. One mother shared that she had become homeless after an unfortunate incident forced her out of her family’s house. Then she lost custody of her son. She ended up coming to the BOTW shelter where she worked hard to get her son back. She continues to work 40+ hours a week at popular restaurant chain while enrolled in a BOTW GED program as well. This is one of many powerful stories that I came across in that shelter. These young people have been through a lot. As Terri put it, “It’s like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulder”. What I admire about all these young people is that although life has them on the ropes and is hitting them with everything it got, they continue to fight and endure.

What BOTW hopes to do is not only to offer these young people in need safe and adequate shelter, but to teach skills so that they could one day successfully make the transition from shelter to permanent housing. Young people staying in the shelter are encouraged to make preparations for independent living. They are assigned house tasks specifically to ensure they have a good foundation once they move out and will need to perform household duties in their own apartment. The shelter also provides the young people with resources to not only get on their feet, but have fun as well. Throughout the buildings, there are bulletin boards filled with information about free events, job postings, employment opportunities, as well as healthcare resources.

The staff members are incredible men and women. I didn’t get a chance to meet all of them but Terri, Cynthia, and Steve are three people who genuinely care and work tirelessly, to help young people. While some people might see these young people’s present circumstances alone, staff members at BOTW see their untapped potential. Shelter staff members are present 24 hours a day, and are really invested in these young people’s lives. As Terri put it, “We try to find out who they are, what they like, help them with their self esteem, and meet their goals so that one day these kids could have the life they dream about.”

While on the tour I came across an image that I feel does a great job in summing the program, the people, and the shelter. This image was a photo taken during a recent graduation. In the picture it shows one young mother smiling proudly in her cap and gown with her handsome son dressed up right by her side. The picture is just one of many successful stories that come out of this house. It shows that although the odds appear to be stacked, one can always overcome. This whole experience has made me even more grateful for the support system and opportunities I have in my life. It also energizes me to do more as far as being an advocate for unaccompanied homeless youth. As a young person I know I would not be where I am today had it not been for the great support system around me.

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Category: General | Guest Entry