THE BLOG
02/20/2014 06:57 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2014

Left Out in the Cold

This winter has been one for the record books. Wind chills have closed in on -30 and below, and with the exception of the recent warm snap we've rarely seen temperatures above freezing, not to mention the record-breaking snowfall. It's really been an inconvenience, assuming you have somewhere to warm up. But for thousands this winter, warmth is a luxury they don't have.

Last year 6,276 people were found to be homeless in Chicago, a number that is tallied by way of a one-night count. On one cold night in January, volunteers comb the streets in an attempt to count every individual who is homeless on that night. This count is extremely important -- the federal government relies on the numbers gathered through this effort to determine the amount of funding it will provide to programs and agencies serving those who are homeless.

The count is an enormous undertaking and the system is not perfect. It offers a snapshot of one night rather than a holistic picture of trends in homelessness, and it doesn't capture those who have lost their homes but are living doubled-up with friends and relatives. Nevertheless, it's the best tool we have and it's built on a sound strategy. During the winter, shelter usage is high and people can be most easily counted in that environment. To find the remaining individuals, volunteers are sent out.

This year this invaluable count fell on a below-zero night -- a now all too familiar occurrence - and when I leave my office at Heartland Alliance, the Midwest's leading anti-poverty organization, where I work, and am met with bitter cold, I think back to it. I couldn't be there, but Heartland Alliance's dedicated staff was out in force and the next morning I was excited to hear their stories. One that sticks with me to this day is the story of John, who our volunteers met in a train station.

When our staff surveyed him about his experience in homelessness, John told them that he came from a home where he always had enough to eat and didn't worry about having a bed at night. In that home however, he had experienced violence and struck out on his own at an early age to escape it, enduring homelessness on and off and struggling with addiction. But today life was looking up -- he was two months sober and had a job interview the next day.

What sticks with me most however is something John told our team just before they left. The team had given him a blanket and warm gloves, but what he was most thankful for was that they'd taken the time to listen to him. "It's so hard to keep hope alive," he said. "I have no one to talk to. You guys helped me get my hope back because you didn't judge me, you helped me get back to a positive place."

It's this blend of service and connection that we take such great pride in here at Heartland Alliance. We know that the way out of poverty is through housing, healthcare, jobs and justice -- the building blocks of a safe, stable, healthy life -- combined with personalized support. It's an approach that works for hundreds of thousands throughout the Midwest each year, but so many more are still left out in the cold.

These vital services are key to ending poverty and homelessness, but as crucial as they are, they are equally underfunded. So far there have been 21 cold-related deaths in the Chicagoland area and those who are homeless are especially at risk. As we all muddle through this winter, it's time we redouble our resolve to eliminate homelessness and to say that each and every person deserves a roof over their head, a safe, warm place to sleep at night -- and a path out of poverty. We need a robust safety net that not only provides emergency support to those in poverty, but that prevents homelessness, illness, joblessness and injustice.

When we invest in these services, we invest in those who, like John, are struggling to maintain basic human needs, and to simply survive this winter. These individuals have the potential to do so much more if only given the chance. You can provide it. Consider volunteering your time this season, or donating your old winter gear. If your financial means allow, consider making a donation to an organization whose mission speaks to you. Thousands are out in the cold this winter. Let's extend a little warmth.