The winter months are harsh on everyone living in a cold climate---especially if they're homeless. Shelters will try to accommodate as many people as possible, but space is often limited. Winter months can be deadly for homeless people, so it's vital to encourage homeless people to sleep inside.
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November 1 to March 31 is considered hypothermia season and is the time when homeless people need the most medical attention. Many cities offer some form of outreach to people sleeping on the streets. For example, in Washington DC, citizens can call the Hypothermia Hotline to report the location of homeless people out in freezing weather. The city will provide outreach, blankets, medical assistance and encourage the person to go to a shelter. People in other cities can call the local homeless coalition, an emergency shelter, or 211/First Call for Help to connect a homeless person with resources. In many cities, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year is kicked off with National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day, which brings attention to the tragedies of homelessness by holding a candlelight vigil for homeless people who've died.
When the temperature reaches a predetermined low, cities will declare a state of emergency where shelters cannot turn anyone away and overflow shelters will be opened. Outreach workers will transport anyone sleeping on the street to a homeless shelter. Besides offering transport, outreach workers help homeless people by providing blankets, medical care, food and hot beverages and other assistance. According to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, volunteerism is at a peak around the holidays and then slows down afterward so that by February--the coldest month of the year--resources have dwindled. In response to this issue, Cleveland has held its annual Homeless Stand Down in February. The Stand Down is a daylong event where homeless individuals can receive winter gear, massages, haircuts, health check-ups and new clothing. Other cities hold similar events.
Not all homeless people have access to shelter---even in the winter. Alhough cities will open overflow shelter to meet the increased demand, space may still be limited. Shelters---and overflow shelters---may be packed on freezing winter days and it's not uncommon to see people sleeping in the hallways or in the lobby. Every city has its own resources and plan for dealing with homelessness and some cities have more to offer than others.
It can be life-threatening for a homeless person to sleep outside in the winter. Many homeless people have died of hypothermia---a condition that occurs when a body loses more heat than it can produce. Homeless people have even died in the snow, only to be found in spring during a thaw. If you see a homeless person out in the elements for an extended amount of time, call your local homeless coalition, medical outreach team, or the police.
If you want to help homeless people in the winter, contact your local homeless coalition, emergency shelter or meal site for advice on when to volunteer and what to do. In general, volunteers are more scarce in late winter months than around the holidays. Contact your local elected representatives and ask what their plan is for addressing homelessness in winter and whether or not overflow shelter is available.
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