Deep freeze puts thousands of homeless people in jeopardy

The plunging temperatures may be deadly for the estimated half a million people who live on the streets.

A homeless man tries to stay warm on a Manhattan street on an unseasonably cold day. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A homeless man tries to stay warm on a Manhattan street on an unseasonably cold day. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As an arctic blast sends temperatures plunging across the country this week, advocates for the homeless are warning the frigid conditions could be deadly for the estimated half a million people who live on the streets.

Homeless shelters in cities across the Northeast and Midwest are reaching capacity, according to local news reports, and struggling to accommodate the increased demand as temperatures dip far below freezing.

“It’s life and death out there,” Stephen Welch, the director of development for a nonprofit organization that serves the homeless community in Boston, told a local CBS affiliate on Thursday. “I talked to a couple of guys who thought they were going to die today. They could barely move.”

In Cincinnati, a 55-year-old homeless man named Ken Martin was found dead at a bus stop this week. Advocates from nonprofit group Maslow’s Army, which has long pushed for a 24-hour shelter for homeless people to seek refuge, blamed Martin’s death on the city’s shortage of resources to assist homeless people.

“It’s 2017,” Cincinnati Councilmember P.G. Sittenfeld, who has suggested that local lawmakers will take up the issue of 24-hour shelters next year, told the Cincinnati Enquirer on Wednesday. “This is the United States. No one should freeze to death under any circumstance.”

Many people do freeze to death in the United States. Although there aren’t comprehensive national figures about how many people die on the street, advocates memorialize several thousand of these deaths each year.

Part of the issue, city officials and nonprofit leaders say, is uneven federal and state funding for shelters — as well a lack of adequate investment in the affordable housing units that can help low-income people move off the streets altogether. Housing and anti-homelessness services took a big hit in the 2014 sequester, which required steep automatic budget cuts, and haven’t fully recovered since.

There’s no sign of the situation improving under the Trump administration, which has shown little regard for strengthening safety net programs for people struggling to keep a roof over their head. President Trump’s proposed budget for FY 2018 would make huge cuts to public housing and homeless assistance grants — cuts that anti-homelessness advocates characterize as “devastating.” The White House has also proposed eliminating the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness altogether, despite evidence that getting rid of this council would hamper national efforts to end homelessness.

According to estimates from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the homeless population in the United States increased this year for the first time since 2010 — largely driven by the lack of affordable housing in increasingly expensive cities like Los Angeles.