01/10/2011 01:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Surviving Homelessness in the Cold

With the full force of winter weather being felt across the country and poverty at unprecedented levels, it is important to keep in mind how the cold impacts our most vulnerable. Aside from understanding the negative impact, assessing how you can help is also essential.

Last year, some startling information was released — information and statistics that shed light on how lower temperatures make a dire situation immensely worse for America’s poor. In Jan. 2010, the National Coalition for the Homeless released a report on the dangers homeless people face and the services communities provide when the temperature drops.

The report, entitled Winter Homeless Services: Bringing Our Neighbors In From The Cold, provides policy recommendations for communities and shelter providers. It also gives some insight into the additional problems cold weather creates for those without adequate personal shelter.

Focus On: Hypothermia

Here are some startling pieces of information from the report:

  • "700 people experiencing or at risk of homelessness are killed from hypothermia annually in the United States."
  • "People experiencing homelessness have a much higher risk than the general population of developing exposure-related conditions such as hypothermia and frostbite.” In addition to the immediate danger of life-threatening conditions like hypothermia, cold exposure can cause illness and injury that “may also increase the risk of dying from unrelated conditions in the future.”
  • “Many of the chronic problems faced by homeless people, including inadequate clothing, malnutrition, and underlying infection, further increase the risk of developing and dying from hypothermia.”
  • “…Many homeless people struggle with alcohol and drug addictions. The use of these substances substantially increases their susceptibility to hypothermia.” To make matters worse, “people suffering from hypothermia often have impaired judgment and cannot perceive their own need for shelter or medical care.”

Focus On: Shelter Access

Many shelters, 54 percent of those surveyed are only open at night — even during the winter. This leaves people without shelter during the day, often regardless of the temperature. Many do not open for the night until after dark and some require residents to leave by as early as 6:00 am.

Another major concern is that many shelters restrict access to only those who meet certain criteria, despite the universal dangers that cold weather pose to human safety. Though many providers relax restrictions in response to extreme cold, a significant number do not admit people who are inebriated.

There are other restrictions as to who can stay in some shelters. According to the report, “…many shelters do not admit people who have been previously banned for behavior problems, who have already stayed in the shelter for a specific number of days, or who are convicted sex offenders.”

When shelters offer additional services due to the cold, they are often based on arbitrary temperature cut-offs. This means they relax their standards only when the temperature is low enough, most commonly from 20-30 F. This, despite the fact that hypothermia is a more critical threat when the ambient temperature is notably higher. As the report states,

“According to Dr. James J. O'Connell from the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), the most dangerous cases of hypothermia do not occur when the ambient [surrounding] temperature is far below freezing. Instead, Dr. O'Connell says, the worst cases they see arise when the days are warm (between 40 F and 50 F) and the nighttime temperature drops to the mid-30s.”

These temperature cut-offs also decrease access because, “… the effectiveness of a shelter is decreased when the population it serves does not

know, from night to night, whether the shelter will be open.”

Homelessness creates a constant struggle to find a place to sleep, wash and keep warm. We must develop comprehensive policies to combat homelessness. But we must also ensure that those who find themselves without a roof over their head on a frigid night survive to struggle another day.

Each year, Here's Life Inner City distributes thousands of Homeless Care Kits to children and families who are desperately in need. These kits provide warmth and hope on cold winter nights. This year, with your help, we're praying to distribute 5,820 Kits. Each package contains: blankets, gloves, scarves, caps, socks, hygiene basics ... and the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Read more about this project and click here to provide Homeless Care Kits to those in need