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

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