Winter is a very scary time to be an unsheltered person in the best of times. With COVID-19, this winter is even scarier.
Restrictions on occupancy, mask ordinances, and stay home orders mean there’s less space in warming shelters than ever, even as the number of the unsheltered skyrockets.
Last winter there were 479 unsheltered people in Springfield. As of writing this, there’s roughly 700.
And there’s only 65 confirmed spots in warming shelters. 65 out of 700.
In Springfield, warming shelters can only open when actual temperatures are below 32 degrees for four or more hours. 33 degrees, raining, with a windchill of 10? No shelters. October and 29 degrees (like last night)? No shelters.
Unsheltered people die every single winter from exposure. In Springfield, we hold a vigil on December 21 honoring the unsheltered people who passed in the last year. Their community hold signs with their names, the names are read, songs are sung, prayers are given, and they are mourned in the way they deserve, while the community at large complains about their very existence.
The reality the entire unsheltered community is grappling with is painful – more people are going to die this year than is typical. It’s just a fact. We don’t even have space for 10% of the unsheltered to stay warm this year.
To top that off, those 65 spots are 100% dependent on having enough volunteers. Here in Springfield, the majority of churches that open up for warming shelters and the majority of volunteers are of high risk communities in their own right. Over 65, preexisting conditions, BIPOC, low income – all people who are rightfully afraid of exposure to COVID.
It’s a sticky place. While common sense precautions are absolutely necessary – and none of us would argue against that – it means that community outreach programs are struggling to make plans for their unsheltered this winter.
The question we keep asking is, “How do we keep the most people alive we possibly can?”
It’s a complex question.
How do we keep people from freezing to death on the street while simultaneously protecting them from COVID?
How do we implement the common sense restrictions necessary to keep everyone safe from COVID while our unsheltered are sleeping?
How do we convince the people who are at the lowest risk with COVID to be volunteers so we can even have those 65 beds?
How do we keep the police from coming into a shelter and issuing mass fines because the unsheltered aren’t wearing masks while they sleep?
It sucks. These are all questions that leadership teams across the country are wrangling with right now.
So before I get into care package details, let’s go over things you can do in your own communities to help.
The most important thing is to volunteer at a warming shelter. Every city handles them differently, but in Springfield every shelter needs two volunteers per night. You take four hour shifts – four hours sleeping, four awake.
Find out if your city has cold weather outreach teams. In Springfield, these teams go to the places we know the unsheltered sleep with blankets, socks, hats, gloves, hot hands, and hot drinks.
ADVOCATE. ADVOCATE. ADVOCATE.
Springfield has been cutting down the wooded areas the unsheltered have used as tent cities in the winter for decades. This is problematic on every level.
One) the unsheltered now have nowhere to pitch their tents. They can’t pitch them on private property, the city fines them if they’re in the park, and it’s hard to find places for them to pitch them as a group. Tent cities are far safer for the unsheltered than pitching a tent alone. The police can move one tent easier than they can fifty.
Two) this pushes them into public view. When the unsheltered are visible, the “dignified citizens” throw fits about their existence.
Example: when our church was forced to move from C-Street to Chesnut, complaints to the police and city officials grew in number, because they could no longer gather in our church, out of view. Complaints grew to the point that a city official representing mid-town CALLED OUR PASTOR, and asked when we’d be moving the entire unsheltered population to Chesnut so the gentrifiers in mid-town didn’t have to see them.
Three) without the ability to pitch tents safely, the unsheltered have to sleep on the ground, or find warming shelters, which are hard to find in the best of times.
So, advocate. Research if your city is similarly stripping the places the unsheltered congregate, and fight it. Fight for affordable housing. Fight for the defunding of police departments.
“But Amanda,” you say, “how would defunding the police solve anything?”
The police are the number one institution keeping people unsheltered. They fine and arrest unsheltered people just for existing. When they can’t pay the fines, they arrest them. They are criminalized for existing.
This cycle of fines and arrests leaves the unsheltered with a record, which as we all know makes finding stable housing and a job even more impossible. (And DO NOT get me started on how getting a job as an unsheltered person is already impossible).
Defunding police departments and directing those funds into affordable (free! if we really want to dream) housing will end homelessness far faster than the police ever will.
Onto the point: care packages.
Carry a few of these with you everywhere you go, and hand them out to the unsheltered you see.
You’ll notice this list is missing a lot of the things you might expect, like hats or scarves. That’s because space is limited when you carry everything you own, and having 25 hats and scarves isn’t practical. If you want to donate hats/scarves/blankets, do so through an organization that works with the local unsheltered daily. Trust me, they’ll know what’s needed and can get it into the hands of their folks.
The items listed here are all things that need replaced often – daily, even.
First things first, get a gallon size ziploc bag, to keep things dry. They’re invaluable, so use them for your packages. Use this list for ideas of what to put in them.
– Hot Hands. We did the math, and in our org in Springfield alone we’ll go through 50,000 this winter. 6 Hot Hands can be strategically placed to keep someone from freezing to death. These literally save lives, and you can pick them up at most gas stations. Put at least 6 in your packages to guarantee the person one night of not freezing to death.
– Socks. One of our folks says that blankets are great, but socks are the most important thing to stay warm. When you’re walking all day, socks wear out and get wet fast, and having a dry pair can and will save toes.
– Gloves. Gloves also wear out quickly, get wet, and get lost.
– Cash. Just stick some cash in there. The ability to go into a business and buy a hot drink can be a lifesaver. They can sit in a warm building while they drink it, without fear of being told they’re loitering because, look! They’re drinking that coffee they just bought in the business’ mug. Also, people need money? So give them the cash and let them decide what they need.
– Cigarettes. I know, cigarettes are bad. But listen, quitting smoking is hard when everything is going right, and sometimes people need the nicotine to get through the day.If your goal is to alleviate suffering, a pack of cigarettes can go a long way for an unsheltered person who smokes. For those who don’t smoke, cigarettes can be used to barter for things they do need.
– Pads and tampons. Most outreach orgs give them out if/when we have them (and seriously, DONATE PADS!!! Almost no one does and they are quite possibly the most requested item.) but there’s never enough to go around. Try to stick a day’s supply in there.
– Condoms. Again, just do it. People have sex, help them do it safely.
– Advil/Tylenol/cold meds. Think about how you feel after an entire day outside in the winter, and then multiply that by every day.
– Chapstick and lotion. Again, cold weather wreaks havoc on the body, especially skin.
– Hand sanitizer. The little bottles with the key rings are perfect.
– Masks. Remember, washing clothes can be a rare treat, and that goes for masks, too. Having extras never hurts.
– Pet Packs. Make separate packets for people you see with dogs. Just give them a ziploc bag full of grain free dog food and treats. Keeping extra collars/leashes/harnesses in your car is good, too.
– Quarters. Going back to the clothes washing – they need quarters for laundromats.
-Kleenex Travel Pack. Because runny noses are a thing.
– Rain Poncho. Nothing is worse than being wet and cold.
– Cough Drops. Again, colds suck and cough drops help. Especially with the COVID, the last thing our people need is for the community to think they’re carrying it. Cough drops help the cough, and also keep them safe from assumptions.
– Travel Size Dry Shampoo. Another frequently requested, not often donated item.
If you can fit all of that into a ziploc bag, great! If not even including some of them is awesome. I put Hot Hands and Socks at the top of the list because they are the most important. As in “keep people from dying” important.
Please consider doing something to help your unsheltered neighbors as we head into winter. It’s the deadliest time for the unsheltered, and during this season of Covid the risks are multiplied due to the necessary precautions against the virus.