Skip to main content

An Increasing Number of Unsheltered People Must Weather the Polar Vortex

Due to an ongoing housing crisis, more and more people have nowhere to hide from this week's extreme cold.
A homeless man sits in the falling snow in the Financial District on January 30th, 2019, in New York City.

A homeless man sits in the falling snow in the Financial District on January 30th, 2019, in New York City.

A polar vortex hit New England and the Midwest with temperatures as low as the South Pole (under -20 degrees Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, confining kids, teachers, and even postal workers to their homes. But, due to an ongoing housing crisis, an increasing number of people have nowhere to go. Previous emergencies show the homeless population is already at a high risk for frostbite and hypothermia, often because cities lack the resources or plans to protect them. Now, homeless advocates are preparing for potentially deadly cold.

"This is really a historic event in terms of the dangers it presents to people living outside," John Tribbett, street outreach manager at Minneapolis' St. Stephen's, a non-profit that operates several shelters, told HuffPost.

In 2018, 35 percent of homeless people in the United States were unsheltered, meaning they were living on the street, in abandoned buildings, or "in other places not suitable for human habitation," according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) point-in-time count. The other 65 percent were living in temporary or emergency shelters. That means that, among the country's 553,000 homeless people, 193,550 were living outside.

While the West Coast states have the highest rates of homelessness, East Coast cities also have large homeless populations; New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia are among the top 10. HUD has also found that regional and rural areas in colder climates experience the highest rates of unsheltered family homelessness, Chicago among them.

Due in part to the escalating homelessness crisis, the number of injuries from cold have risen dramatically in the past 20 years, researchers have found. Risk factors include inadequate clothing, malnutrition, advanced age, substance abuse, social isolation, and mental illness—many of which are common among people who are homeless, a population that is already at a much greater risk for illness than housed people.

Even in more manageable cold, hypothermia can be fatal. During a 10-year period, from 2003 to 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded more than 13,400 deaths from exposure to unsafe temperatures. Mild hypothermia sets in as one's body temperature dips below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point it's considered a medical emergency.

For those suffering from mild hypothermia, warming the body with blankets and hot air can help, but serious cases need immediate medical attention. Cities like Chicago and Minneapolis are urging people to call 311 to learn where to direct people on the street to find shelter, or to call 911 if someone is experiencing symptoms of hypothermia.

Even before the vortex, state and local agencies started opening warming shelters during periods of extreme cold. But these shelters have their drawbacks: People often wait outside in long lines, others might be excluded due to addiction or mental illness, and some might not want to leave possessions behind. According to a recent round-up of winter services from the National Coalition for the Homeless, 34 percent of homeless shelters it polled nationwide are overnight facilities that do not open during the day, and 24 percent do not admit people who are visibly drunk.

Worse, few communities have city-wide plans for an emergency like this one. In Chicago, the Sun-Times reports that the city does not provide curbside medical services to the city's 8,000 homeless people, but "reserves the right to use force to get someone to safety." Park District officials say they've added 500 shelter beds and several warming centers in libraries, police stations, and Chicago Transit Authority buses. Here, people will have heat—but they'll be out on the streets when the winter thaws.