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Coping With The Cold Is About Survival For The Homeless


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We've been talking a lot about the weather so far this year. Many parts of the country have been suffering from unusually heavy snow falls, ice storms and subfreezing temperatures. And even as we speak, those on the East Coast are bracing for the latest round of tough winter weather. And often, the snafus that result from people trying to make it home in tough weather are what make the news, but that got us thinking about the effect of extreme weather on people who don't have a home to go to.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that more than 600,000 people in the U.S. are homeless on any given night. And we wanted to talk about how they've been coping through the winter and what organizations are doing to help. So we've called on Jerry Jones. He is the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. He's here in Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thanks for coming.

JERRY JONES: Hi, there.

MARTIN: Also joining us, Liz Kuoppala. She is the executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. And she's on the phone with us from Moorhead, Minnesota. Welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

LIZ KUOPPALA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Jerry, just briefly, when we talk about who's homeless and the figure I just cited, are we talking about people who have no permanent address, who are, you know, maybe living in shelters or perhaps their cars or - what does that figure refer to?

JONES: It's both of those. And it's a range of folks who are in different situations. Some are chronically homeless, so they are living on sidewalks or on heat grates. Others are families who are perhaps homeless for very short periods of time. And the range in between. There's young people who are on the streets.

MARTIN: You could be technically homeless and doubled up in just overcrowded circumcisions with family members. But for purposes that we're talking about, which is people who are coping with really extreme situations whose shelter is not ideal, about how many people do you think we're talking about on any given night?

JONES: Well, so the figure you cited does not include the doubled up families. It's folks who are unsheltered and folks who are in emergency shelter and other programs like that.

MARTIN: So compared to previous winters - are you finding that this one is more taxing?

JONES: Absolutely. It's been a tough winter. You know, we've seen more news coverage of folks who are dying of hypothermia. So I think as we get to the end of this season we'll assess just how tragic and bad it has been. But for the same reasons that you and I feel like it's been cold out there, homeless folks have experienced exactly that as well.

MARTIN: Liz, what about you? You're in a part of the country that is perhaps more used than others of difficult winters, the kinds of winters that, you know, in some parts of the country kind of shut things down are really more routine where you are. So what about you? Are you seeing people who are more taxed by the weather this year than you've seen in previous years?

KUOPPALA: Yeah, it's been brutally cold this winter in Minnesota, and schools have been closed. The governor has closed schools. And then local districts have closed schools record number of days this winter. And one thing folks don't think about sometimes is school is the only warm place that sometimes homeless youth who are on their own have to go during the day, or for families who are doubled up, as we were discussing, with cuts to food supports. Food shelves only provide, like, about three to seven days of food for a month. And so if children can't be eating at school, these are little kids who aren't eating at all. And so just many impacts.

But we've seen more frostbite and that sort of thing from folks who are staying outside. I had a guy in - up in Duluth staying outside in a storage locker with no kind of heat at all. He was found by outreach workers, really wanted help. He went willingly with them to seek medical help, to get shelter, and not into housing. But his toes got amputated. And we just think this is harmful to him and his health, but also harmful to our costs, to the health care system. If we can just house folks instead of having them live in these extreme conditions, it saves money in the long run.

MARTIN: Jerry, you were telling us that (inaudible) that just speaking of emergency shelter can vary really wildly across the country. So can you just tell us a little bit about that? In fact, you have a map. Your organization has a map showing exactly how cold it has to get before a particular city will open emergency shelter. Can you give us a sense of the range there?

JONES: So in certain cities, it's - the threshold for opening extra shelter is 40 degrees. In other cities, New York, for example, D.C., it's 32 degrees. In some places, it goes down to 20 degrees. So there's sort of this range of views across the country on just how cold it has to be before we're not OK with fellow human beings out there shivering in the cold.

MARTIN: We were trying to investigate this question before you came in today. And our librarians found at least 10 deaths of homeless people reported in newspapers since January. But you're saying it's difficult to get a reliable picture of this of how many people who are unsheltered actually die from exposure. Why is it so hard to kind of get an accurate picture of this?

JONES: Well, the information that's mostly out there for this season is news reports. That might be where some of your researchers found those 10 deaths. And so it's only as medical examiner's offices, and it's common for the Centers for Disease Control to measure these types of things. We will have a much larger number, sadly, as we get through the end of the winter. But, you know, I think it's a safe assumption that with such a cold, bitter set of temperature drops, we're going to have more fatalities this year than last year.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about how people without housing are coping through this harsh winter. Our guests are Liz Kuoppala of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless and Jerry Jones of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Liz, go ahead.

KUOPPALA: Part of the reason it's hard to get a number on exactly how many people are dying because of the cold - many folks are homeless because they have no support system at all. It might be untreated mental illness, or it might be chemical dependency or just deep, deep poverty that has pushed them into homelessness and away from any kind of support structure they have. And so these folks are often forgotten. Nobody notices they're missing for maybe years. And so it's homeless outreach workers who are finding them or other, you know, sometimes it's public safety officials or others finding them in places. But that's why it's so hard to get an accurate count until much later.

MARTIN: You were telling us that you're seeing people who actually do have shelter or who can afford rent still going to homeless shelters. Now why would that be?

KUOPPALA: We've seen folks who are paying rent, but for one reason or another, landlords don't have the heat on in their apartment. And so one family recently in Minneapolis came to the attention of Minneapolis Public Schools when a student told their teacher they'd been without heat since January 1. Five children, an infant, a toddler and young schoolchildren in an apartment huddled around in just one room with a space heater trying to stay warm and, I think, didn't know that they have legal rights.

You know, if they're paying their rent, it includes having the heat on. So they got moved to shelters so they - for a warm place to stay. And so they're taking up shelter beds that, really, if we could have good policies - you know, they were doing everything right and just couldn't make it work in an apartment.

MARTIN: So there's a knock-on effect is kind of what you're telling us. And, Jerry Jones, speaking of the other - this sort of knock-on effect - and I think people who live in cities - generally, if you've lived in a city of any size, you've kind of seen the phenomenon of people gathering around heating grates for warmth. Some cities are trying to criminalize that behavior saying you can't camp out on a city street overnight.

Some people feel that that's an appropriate measure because people shouldn't be. It's not safe for any number of reasons. But some people feel like that's a lifestyle choice. If people don't want to go to shelters, they should have the option not to go or for whatever reason. Can I just get your perspective on that?

JONES: The top of a heat grate or huddling in a doorway is not great housing. But when weather gets this cold, that's the difference sometimes between hypothermia and making it through the evening until you can go into a McDonald's or somewhere to nurse a cup of coffee for a few hours and warm up. So the criminalization aspect of it is happening all across the country. It's essentially a reaction by cities that don't have the resources to create the housing. They're trying to make people go away.

MARTIN: Liz, what's your take on that?

KUOPPALA: I think there's lots of reasons people don't go to shelters. So the reason - I mean, you know, the full shelters that Jerry mentioned. But there is also sometimes people with pets. And, you know, the pets might be the only thing they have. And shelters might not be able to take pets for any number of reasons. Or many of these are folks with untreated mental illness who, you know, maybe some of them have bad experience in shelter. And really what they need is housing with appropriate supports. And our outreach workers haven't ever worked with anyone who doesn't want to come in into housing if there can be appropriate supports. Some of them don't want to - you know, they'd rather turn down undignified shelter, the kind of shelter where we have 250 mats on a basement floor all a couple inches apart. And if you're just discharged from a hospital and you're worried about getting an infection and everyone around you is coughing, you know, from pneumonia and other things, you - you know, it might be the smarter choice to stay out by a warm grate.

But I think it's also important - we rarely see children out by those warm grates. And I think it's just so important to know that half the homeless in Minnesota anyway are children and youth. And, for example, in Minneapolis today, 40 school bus loads of kids are being bussed from shelter to school. And you've got to wonder, if you're not seeing them, you know, in public places, there's all kinds of reasons. Many of them - single biggest reason their homeless is their moms are fleeing domestic violence, and it's unsafe for them to be seen in public places. But shelters are full for them, too, in cities across the country. And I just think we have to do more to invest in the housing and services we need. Housing stability means kids will do better in school. Housing stability means workers will do better at work. Housing stability is good for, you know, local, state and federal budgets.

MARTIN: Liz, you kind of gave us your take away on this. So, Jerry, can I just get a final thought from you on this? And, as we've mentioned, through the course of this extreme weather we've had a lot of conversation about how to avoid these traffic tie ups and these kind of really terrible situations like we saw in Georgia where people were on the road for hours and kids were on school buses for hours. What's your best practice based on the years that you've been working in this field that you would want to recommend to avoid some of the extreme situations that we've seen with people who are homeless and don't have a home to go to so that we're not having this conversation again next year?

JONES: We need two things. We need emergency shelter for people who are out of doors when temperatures are dangerously low. And then the long-term solution is housing. Folks need different kinds of housing depending on their situation. But ultimately, that's what's lacking, and that's why so many folks are out on the street.

MARTIN: Liz, any final thoughts about best practices that you would want communities, localities, whether they're rural or urban, to follow at a time like this?

KUOPPALA: We know when we invest in housing, we save resources in other systems. And so I think investing in housing, and especially the housing tied to appropriate services is essential.

MARTIN: Liz Kuoppala is executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. Jerry Jones is executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Thank you both so much for joining us.

KUOPPALA: Thank you.

JONES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.