When Temperatures Drop Below Freezing, What Happens to the Homeless?

Here's how some East Coast cities care for those living on the streets during harsh winter weather.

(Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

Jan 27, 2016· 4 MIN READ
TakePart editorial fellow Nicole Mormann covers a variety of topics, including social justice, entertainment, and environment.

As you know by now unless you have been living in an igloo without Wi-Fi, one of the biggest blizzards ever recorded on the East Coast pummeled the mid-Atlantic region last weekend. The storm, unofficially dubbed Winter Jonas, blanketed major metropolises in more than two feet of snow, brought highways and public transportation to a standstill, and claimed the lives of at least 45 people.

While most were able to hole up in the comfort of their homes, those living on the streets had to find other ways to keep warm in the midst of the blizzard. Some huddled around steam grates or slept in subway cars or at train stations. Many homeless people were shuttled into shelters, hospitals, and drop-off centers as part of emergency protocols several cities have adopted for when extreme weather affects the safety of their citizens. It’s estimated that nearly 580,000 people experience homelessness on any given night in the United States (fewer people live in the city of Atlanta).

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Under the policy known as Code Blue, anyone in need of a place to stay when temperatures fall below 32 degrees Fahrenheit is given immediate access—without question or procedure—to designated spaces offering a safe haven. Outreach teams are on the streets 24-7, picking up some of their city’s most vulnerable residents, and drop-in homeless shelters are required to take in as many homeless people as their building restrictions allow.

Though city governments were quick to make sure those living on the streets had access to shelters and safe locations during Winter Jonas, the protocol only seeks to help them in harsh weather conditions.

"The city sees the temporary shelter and outreach work as an easy, quick solution, like that's enough,” Patrick Byer, a 40-year-old homeless man from New York, told Vice. “They pat themselves on the back, like they did something really big. But what happens after the storm? We just go back to the same situation.”

More on Byer's point below, and here’s how three East Coast cities handle their homeless population over the winter months.

New York City

When the mercury drops below freezing, police departments and social services are required to relocate homeless people to shelters and other safe zones, whether or not they want to go. In January Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order mandating the policy for the state’s rising homeless population.

When Winter Jonas hit, outreach workers in Manhattan rescued as many as 132 homeless people from the streets and brought them to shelters and hospital emergency rooms, where they stayed until the storm ended, according to Vice. The teams started on Friday at 8 p.m. and didn’t stop until Monday at 8 a.m. (Sam Tsemberis, who conceived of the homeless placement program Housing First, which has been successful in many cities, came up with the idea while working homeless outreach in New York on cold winter nights.)

(Photo: Mladen Antonov/Getty Images)

At Harlem Hospital, Byer told Vice, people slept on small metal benches or the floor.

"There should be specific places for situations like this," Byer said. "An emergency space with shelter and a meal, instead of a bed in an emergency room. Just somewhere people can rest their head safely at night."

Thousands of New Yorkers sleep on the streets, in subways, and in other public areas each night.


Philadelphia has implemented what Byer describes. It’s in a subway station under City Hall. When winter weather hits, the station offers the city’s homeless a place to stay, a hot drink, and social and mental health services during their visit. The drop-in program, called Hub for Hope, is overseen by Philadelphia-based nonprofit Project Home and is open from early January through early April.

"This is a place where we try to lower barriers to care for the homeless," said Karen Orrick, coordinator for Hub of Hope, told USA Today. "We try to focus on the long-term homeless, although we try to help and refer anyone to services."

Homeless people take refuge in a subway station in Philadelphia as snow continues to fall. (Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country and is one of the most expensive cities for renters. On any given night, the city estimates, about 650 people are sleeping on the streets—this doesn’t include those who sleep in shelters, cars, abandoned buildings, transportation centers, or other public spaces. Hub for Hope handles 150 to 200 people a night. The rest are placed in available shelters and emergency housing throughout the city.

Washington, D.C.

With about 1,000 families in its care, the city ran out of shelter space and available motel rooms in time for Winter Jonas. With so many in need of shelter, the city government started booking motel rooms outside the District limits. Some 211 families totaling 700 children and parents were placed in Maryland motels. Washington, D.C., has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, with 120 homeless people per 10,000 residents. (The national average is about 18.)

At the first sign of snowfall on Friday, city workers were sent out to deliver food and store gift cards to the hundreds of families staying in motels.

“Yes, they will be marooned, just like everybody in the city will be marooned,” said Laura Green Zeilinger, head of homeless services, told The Washington Post on Friday. “That’s why we’re getting out to them in advance.”

Zeilinger said that recreation centers had also been opened for individuals seeking shelter during the storm, and couples were accepted in some circumstances.

A homeless man tries to stay warm on top of a steam grate outside the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

But, as Byer pointed out, the shortcomings of homelessness outreach and housing aren't a function of the weather. Experts say that homelessness in the U.S. is increasingly a result of a lack of affordable housing. Though the national homeless rate fell between 2013 and 2014, some of the most expensive cities for renters, including New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., have well over the national average rate of homelessness.

Now just imagine how winters might be for the homeless if these cities put stock into an affordable housing program, instead of dropping those residents off in whatever place was available and convenient for the cold season.