Meteorologists are warning of an impending “Arctic blast” that could set record low temperatures across the country this week, dropping to 35 below zero in some parts of the Midwest. Icy wind chills are making the cold snap even more dangerous, driving temperatures down to as low as 50 below zero and increasing the risk of hypothermia. As of Monday, 26 states are under warnings or watches for “severe wind chill,” and health officials are warning that even just a few minutes outdoors without proper layers of clothing could lead to frostbite, particularly among people over the age of 65.
Cities like St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee canceled public school on Monday, encouraging people to stay indoors. Museums, libraries, and zoos are also closed in Chicago. “This winter storm will be one for the record books,” Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said on Sunday, telling people to remain inside unless absolutely necessary.
But for homeless people across the country, staying inside isn’t always an option.
According to the latest government data, more than 600,000 Americans are homeless on any given night. And the low-income individuals who live on the streets are particularly at risk during extreme weather events. Each year, about 700 homeless people die from hypothermia, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Most of those deaths occur in the Northeast and Midwest, but people also freeze to death in places that aren’t typically prepared to combat cold weather, like the Bay Area.
The recent cold front and winter storms have already led to some deaths. A man froze to death on a sidewalk in Milwaukee on Friday, and an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s froze in upstate New York after wandering out of her home. And anti-poverty advocates are worried about the dangers to come for the homeless population as it gets even colder later this week.
Shelters across the country are currently scrambling to ensure they can accommodate additional people during this week’s cold snap. In Missouri, the Red Cross is on standby to help treat people suffering from extreme cold. Shelters in Tennessee have activated their emergency plans, setting up overflow areas for an anticipated rush. Kansas shelters are extending their hours this week in light of the bitter cold. The Salvation Army is ramping up its outreach in Minnesota, one of the states expected to bear the brunt of the freezing temperatures. Major cities are setting up warming centers to provide relief to extremely poor people who typically spend most of their time outside.
But in some areas, there may not be enough resources to keep everyone healthy. In Camden, New Jersey, shelters are already overcrowded in the aftermath of last week’s snowstorm, and city officials have been accused of being unprepared to serve the homeless. Shelters are also starting to fill up in Iowa and Alabama, where local groups are encouraging individuals to donate warm clothing and blankets to the homeless. Agencies in Pennsylvania warn they’re already stretched too thin and may not have any more space for people suffering from the cold this week.
Health officials are encouraging people to dial a local hypothermia hotline if they see any individuals on the streets this week. And, in light of the fact that government programs to combat homelessness have been slashed because of the sequester, people concerned about the current weather could also be moved to make a more long-term investment to address the issue. “Play the long game. Contribute to a good organization that works with severely poor people in your area,” Harold Pollack, a public health and poverty expert based in Chicago, suggested to Forbes.