WAKE UP AMERICA: Homelessness in Winter Cold

by Stephen Lendman


Imagine homelessness any time. Imagine struggling to survive outside. Imagine it in winter cold.
Imagine it during what Chicagoans call Siberian Express conditions. From Sunday night through Thursday morning, they were dangerously frigid.
At times, Monday wind chills reached – 50 degrees Fahrenheit. O’Hare Airport’s low was – 16 degrees. Downtown it was – 15.
Exposed skin risks frostbite. In extreme severe cold, it can happen in around 10 minutes.
Affected areas must be thawed and rewarmed swiftly. Failure to do so risks gangrene and infection.
Hypothermia is more serious. It’s a life-threatening drop in internal body temperature. When it’s below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius), the heart, nervous system and other organs don’t function properly.
Death is risked if not treated in time. Symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, and exhaustion.
Treatment involves restoring body temperature to normal as quickly as possible. Annually about 700 homeless victims die from hypothermia. Countless others experience frostbite.
Over 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness annually. On any given day or night, more than 600,000 are homeless.
Some estimates place it much higher. Over one-third are families with children.
Many are combat veterans. America treats its own with disdain. They outlived their usefulness. They’re unwanted. They’re on their own out of luck back home.
Many end up jobless and homeless without help. Their American dream is nightmarish. Imagine trying to survive outside on frigid Chicago streets.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) estimates over 116,000 homeless people during the 2012 – 2013 school year.
Nearly 19,000 students were affected. Around 98% are children of color.
Many Chicago homeless double-up with family or friends. Some ride Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) trains all night to stay warm.
Less fortunate ones live without shelter. Imagine it in sub-freezing weather. Imagine it in life-threatening wind chills.
Homelessness is largely an economic problem. It increased significantly since the 1980s. Federally funded low-income housing was cut. So were other vital social programs. They’re being eliminated altogether incrementally.
America’s most vulnerable suffer. They’re increasingly on their own. Imagine struggling to survive in this environment. Imagine it on mean Chicago winter streets.
Many US cities have warming centers. Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) operates six. They’re open when temperatures drop below freezing.
They’re closed on weekend holidays unless otherwise indicated. During Chicago’s extreme cold, they were open from 9:00AM until 8PM.
Chicago homeless shelters stay open 12 hours. They operate overnight. They do so from 7PM to 7AM. During Chicago’s frigid cold, they remained open round-the-clock. They did for several days only.
Many homeless victims avoid shelters. One perhaps spoke for others saying: “The only thing that (homeless people) have in common is that we don’t have homes.”
Shelters aren’t people friendly. They’re inhospitable. They’re dangerous. One homeless person compared them to volunteering for jail.
Those doing so are in close contact with others they want nothing to do with. It’s for good reason. Theft, sexual assaults and other abuses are commonplace.
Bedbugs and other parasites cause problems. They infest bedrolls, backpacks, clothes and other possessions. No matter how well shelters are maintained, parasite infestation is high.
Drugs and violence are big problems. Mentally disturbed people are sheltered with general population ones.
Mean streets are no better. Exposure outside leaves victims vulnerable to attacks and bodily harm. In extreme cold, they risk frostbite, hypothermia and death.
Homeless victims are damned if they do or don’t. Imagine daily life on the edge. Imagine it in severe winter cold.
Chicago residents like this writer see homeless victims on streets, in doorways, on benches, or wherever they can huddle from winter cold.
They do so under whatever protective clothing they have. It’s heart-wrenching to see how they live. Imagine this way daily. Imagine having no home.
Imagine no family members for help. Imagine their struggle to survive. Imagine an uncaring society. Imagine it during Main Street Depression conditions.
Imagine budget-cutting when more help is needed. Federal funding to help America’s homeless is woefully inadequate.
Homelessness relates mostly to poverty. Millions are at risk. Conditions are getting worse, not better.
Imagine the world’s richest country increasingly denying its people in need. Joe Volk heads Milwaukee’s Community Advocates. Increased homelessness is no accident, he says.
“In 2000, we as a nation – and the Department of Housing and Urban Development – made the terrible decision to abandon homeless children and their families.”
“Families for a decade have been ignored,” he stressed. Conditions under Obama are worse than ever. Income inequality is unprecedented.
Monetary and fiscal policies favor Wall Street, war profiteers, other corporate favorites and super-rich elites. America’s most disadvantaged increasingly go begging.
Expect growing homelessness if their needs remain unaddressed. Increasingly they’re ignored.
On January 3, DNAinfo Chicago headlined “Homeless Men in Wicker Park Brave Cold, Refuse to Risk Bedbugs in Shelters.”
They’re like many other homeless Chicagoans. “(T)hey’d rather sleep outside in the freezing cold than risk” the hazards of overnight shelters.
On January 2, Kevin Govert and Marcus Faletti huddled in a doorway. They’re outside every night. They want no part of bedbugs.
Franciscan House runs a west side 257-bed shelter. Josh Dargatz is one of its workers. Bedbugs are “a 10 to 20 percent problem,” he said. “(B)ut it’s not like every bed of the 257 is infested.”
“We are experimenting with different sprays. (A) good 5 to 10 percent of (homeless) people would rather be on the street than have a bad night where bedbugs completely overwhelmed them.”
In 2012, Emily Eubanks did volunteer Franciscan House service. “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite” took on a whole new meaning, she said.
At 1:00AM one night, a homeless woman walked out. She was bitten too many times to stay. Even in frigid Chicago cold, bedbugs are a problem.
Uptown’s Cornerstone shelter worker Jeremy Nicholls says:
“We are constantly fighting against them. It’s a hard battle, but we’ve got it down right now.”
Mattresses are sprayed, he said. An exterminator comes regularly. Guests get laundry cards. A nearby laundromat accepts them.
At the same time, “some people won’t come to (shelters) because of bedbugs, for sure,” he added.
Some are allergic. They break out in hives. They get rashes. Others itch uncomfortably.
Numbers perishing during early January’s extreme cold may never be known. Meteorologists call it an arctic “polar vortex.” On January 6, a US National Weather Service spokesman said:
“The coldest temperatures in almost two decades will spread into the northern and central US today behind an Arctic cold front.”
“Combined with gusty winds, these temperatures will result in life-threatening wind chill values as low as 60(F) below zero (51C below zero).”
Snow and icy sleet conditions made things worse in some areas. On January 8, NBC News said all states except Hawaii had locations recording below freezing temperatures.
On January 7, some cities experienced record lows. New York hit 4 degrees F. Doing so broke that date’s previous record low. It stood for 118 years.
Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, and many other US cities experienced record lows.
New York’s all-time low was – 15 degrees F. It was on February 9, 1934. On January 20, 1985, Chicagoans experienced a record low – 27 degrees F.
Adequate protective clothing is essential outside. Multiple layers are important. So is warm head covering. Around 40 – 50% of body heat is lost when uncovered.
Other basic principles include clean clothes. Garments matted with dirt or grime lose insulation. Multiple layers of clothing should be loose. They trap dead air space between them. Doing so provides extra insulation.
Tight clothing restricts blood circulation. Doing so risks cold-related injuries. So do damp or wet clothes. Keeping them dry is important.
Extreme cold is dangerous. Proper protection is vital. America’s homeless struggle best they can. They do it mostly without help when most needed.
America benefits its most privileged. Disadvantaged poor, hungry and homeless huddled masses go begging.
Marginalizing and ignoring them bears testimony to federal, state and local bipartisan harshness.
It’s the American way. It’s the wrong way. It’s cruel. It’s heartless. It’s more than ever so now.
Today’s America is beautiful only for its privileged few. Economic dark side conditions harm most others. Social protections are disappearing when most needed.
Hungry, homeless victims suffer out of sight and mind. They do so year round. In severe winter cold, it’s worst of all.

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