Mickie “Red” Roquemore was a charming, “great guy” who was well liked and didn’t cause problems at a homeless shelter where he often stayed in the past. Last year, he even secured housing with the help of an agency. But the Pontiac, Detroit resident was found dead on New Year’s Day on a porch where he had recently been sleeping apparently due to temperatures dipping down to 15 degrees overnight.
Even slightly higher temperatures this time of year can kill. Anastasia, a transgender woman who lived on the streets of the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, wore scarves around her head, high heels, and a long dark coat while insisting she be called “Your Majesty.” While some called her a thorn in their side, others called her their friend and a “special soul.” At the end of December, she died from exposure on a bench outside of a coffee shop.
Anastasia and Red are just some of those of homeless individuals who have perished simply because they had nowhere to take shelter when temperatures dropped. More than 153,000 Americans have no shelter on any given night. With extreme cold hitting the Northeast and Midwest this week and winter even coming to the South, even more homeless people will be at risk. An estimated 2,000 homeless people died on the streets last year, according to those who memorialized them.
Hypothermia sets in when the body temperature drops below 95 degrees, something that can occur even in 50-degree weather. Yet many cities don’t declare a hypothermia alert, triggering additional shelter options, until it hits 40 degrees or lower. Baltimore waits until the weather is at 13 degrees with wind chill, while a handful of jurisdictions wait until it’s in the 20s and another group until it’s at freezing.
And even those who may have opened up emergency shelter across the country are reporting that it’s already filling up. In Pontiac, where Roquemore died, there aren’t enough shelters to house the city’s homeless population. One was shut down over ordinance and code issues in April of last year, while another where Roquemore had previously stayed is often at capacity this time of year. Shelters and homeless services got hit hard by automatic budget cuts in 2014 and the pain wasn’t entirely alleviated last year.
And if the country doesn’t spend enough on shelters, it certainly is falling down on spending enough to get people into actual housing. There was a 300,000 surplus of affordable housing units in 1970, but after federal assistance fell by 50 percent between 1976 and 2002, there was a 5.5 million shortage come 2009. But spending enough to put the homeless into housing, as has been done in three cities so far, is more cost effective than leaving them on the streets.