Lack of shelter threatens increases in hypothermia and death on the streets

by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

“More and more people are experiencing homelessness, and they’re in grave danger with temperatures dropping. This is a wake-up call to stop the funding cuts.” — Maria Foscarinis, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

WASHINGTON, D.C.— On National Homeless Persons Memorial Day, Dec. 21, 2010, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released its Annual Hunger and Homelessness Report. It shows significant increases in requests for emergency shelter and food assistance in 27 cities studied.

The report indicates that the number of families experiencing homelessness increased by an average of nine percent and the number of unaccompanied individuals experiencing homelessness increased by an average of 2.5 percent.

In two-thirds of cities surveyed, emergency shelters were forced to turn away homeless people due to lack of capacity. And requests for emergency food assistance jumped 24 percent over the last year.

These shelter requests, limited as they are by bed capacity, only reflect a fraction of the number of those facing the winter months without shelter. And with unprecedented demand and funding cuts limiting available shelter space, thousands of homeless people are at risk of hypothermia and death this winter.

“More and more people are experiencing homelessness, and they’re in grave danger with temperatures dropping. This is a wake-up call to stop the funding cuts — and for the federal government to actually increase its investment,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “To call safety-net programs essential is an understatement. This is literally a life-or-death issue.”

 

With federal stimulus funds beginning to dry up and state and local governments facing major budget shortfalls, there is little now standing between homeless people and a deadly winter.

Some local responses have been less than compassionate. On Dec. 21, the City Council in Washington, D.C. considered a law that would exclude non-D.C. residents from emergency shelter in the District, even during hypothermia season.

New York City is conducting an experiment to test its homelessness prevention program that intentionally denies assistance to eligible applicants for two years as a way of examining whether their homelessness prevention program really works. And cities across the country are restricting the public sharing of food with homeless people, even in this time of great need.

“People are dying who don’t need to die,” said Foscarinis. “We can absolutely prevent this. But it’s going to take political will. As they consider cuts and increases to safety-net funding, I urge legislators at all levels of government to keep in mind the consequences to real human beings.”

Since 1990, National Homeless Persons Memorial Day has honored all the men, women, and children who have died while homeless. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, more than 2,600 homeless people died in 2009. This is likely a significant undercount, given the inherent difficulties in gathering such data.

In Washington, D.C., the deceased were honored at a candlelight vigil at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

In Oakland, a memorial for people who died on the streets was held on December 22 at St. Mary’s Center. [See the related article by Molly Woodward on page 4 of this issue: “Reverence for Life in the Midst of Death.”]

A homeless man in San Francisco, hungry and alone on the winter streets, holds up a sign bearing a single poignant word: “Famished.” Robert L. Terrell Photo

A homeless man in San Francisco, hungry and alone on the winter
streets, holds up a sign bearing a single poignant word: “Famished.”
Robert L. Terrell Photo

A Life Consecrated to Compassion and Justice

On the bleak streets of the Tenderloin, a sister took a stand against inhumanity. Her solidarity was inspired by the beatitudes and consecrated to the poor.

The Invisible Natural Cathedral of People’s Park

Builders, please go away. Allow the beauty of an Invisible Natural Cathedral to remain, a living shrine of open space that gives refuge to all people.

Street Spirit Interview with Sister Bernie Galvin

This atrocity was happening in a very wealthy city. It was happening right under our noses. It was very visible. And there was not the united voice of the faith community speaking out. That was the spark of Religious Witness. From that moment, I knew what I had to do.

Interview with Sister Bernie Galvin, Part Two

“What’s forming in my mind is Jesus in the temple when he became angry at the unjust and very exclusive systems of society. That is the very reason that there are the poor and the marginalized. It is not enough just to provide food, clothing and housing.”

‘Such Is the Magic and Spirit of People’s Park’

The mayor has no understanding of the awful defeat the loss of People’s Park would be. No comprehension of the cost in lives and the sacrifices people have made for the Park’s ideals. So many still find it a refuge in a country needing a political and spiritual overhaul.

I Remember Who I Am

“And Now Where?” Lithograph by Rockwell Kent

By and by, I calm down. I meditate. I pray. It is a beautiful day. The sun is setting. I weave my way toward the spot where I sleep, where nobody knows where to find me. I look to the stars, and say my prayers to the God who believes in Me.