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Polar vortex’s impact on unhoused people exposes glaring inequality in U.S. cities

The life-threatening temperatures are particularly dangerous for unhoused people.

A rare polar vortex brings historic low temperatures to New York City, with the temperature dropping fifty degrees lower in a single day. Despite the bitter chill, a homeless man sleeps on a park bench. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
A rare polar vortex brings historic low temperatures to New York City, with the temperature dropping fifty degrees lower in a single day. Despite the bitter chill, a homeless man sleeps on a park bench. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

A polar vortex is hitting many areas of the United States with unusually cold temperatures and endangering unhoused people. As cities take steps to encourage people to go to shelters, the life-threatening weather conditions are shedding light on a lack of sufficient support systems for unhoused people in the short term and the need for long-term solutions to the affordable housing crisis plaguing many U.S. cities.

Several cities are struggling to serve all of the unhoused people who are suffering from the cold temperatures and some unhoused people feel unsafe or uncomfortable in shelters. So far, there have been at least eight deaths associated with the weather change, and unhoused people are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of extreme cold.

Seth Kurzban, clinical associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California, told ThinkProgress that extreme events like the polar vortex can bring media exposure to much bigger issues, like the high cost of housing and homelessness.

“The housing prices [in many U.S. cities] are so high. We know we haven’t seen a real increase in wages in over 30 years and, in addition, people still haven’t recovered from the Great Recession,” he said. “Now we passed a very large tax measure that is going to further concentrate wealth among the top 1 percent, leaving a lot of people further and further behind. When we walk about homelessness, too often the discussion is about individuals who we think have problems and we don’t have enough of a discussion about how this is a tax and social policy problem and how we need to create affordable housing.”

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In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Bishop Dudley Hospitality House has beds for 80 men, 20 women, and some families, but staff are getting out cots and mats and extra volunteers to ensure everyone who comes can stay. In Chicago, Illinois, shelters have been so overwhelmed that the Chicago Transit Authority sent buses to provide unhoused people who aren’t using shelters a warm place to stay.

Dora Taylor, a public information officer at D.C. Department of Human Services told AccuWeather that there are 800 people on average at a shelter but in extreme instances like the polar vortex, shelters can see thousands of people showing up and looking for a place to stay.

While shelters may be overcrowded, some unhoused people are choosing not to go to shelters, even when the cold is dangerous to their health. Much of New York City’s homeless population has decided to stay inside the subway stations, where it is warmer and where they say they won’t experience the kind of problems they would inside a shelter. One unhoused man, Leopold Wiseman, told the New York Times that the shelter environment is “hostile” and that “you have to spend all your energy trying to survive.”

James Bernard and June Lewis, an unhoused couple who spoke to the Washington Post, said they weren’t going to a shelter because it wasn’t safe and they were worried about people stealing.

Elizabeth Bowen, assistant professor of social work at the University at Buffalo, said there are a lot of reasons unhoused people may feel unsafe in a shelter. 

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“A lot of people experiencing homelessness have been through immense trauma, and there are a lot of things about congregate living in a shelter space that can re-trigger that trauma,” Bowen told ThinkProgress. “This could be related to traumatic or negative past experiences using shelters, including violence or conflicts with clients or staff in shelters, or other kinds of trauma.”

Kurzban said that when weighing the pros and cons of going to a shelter, there are several factors unhoused people must consider.

“A lot of shelters, in addition to not being safe, have a lot of rules,” he said. “We’re talking about a population of people where there are mental health needs and substance abuse needs and it’s very hard for them to necessarily comply with the rules, so for them the trade off of just a place to sleep versus feeling well and feeling accepted usually doesn’t work out.”

Homelessness is rising faster in communities where people spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent, according to a 2018 analysis by Zillow, and the places most vulnerable to climbing rent prices are home to 15 percent of the U.S. population. Income growth has not kept pace with rents in major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle.

Bowen said that there need to be a number of long-term changes to make sure people aren’t living outdoors in the first place, such as expanding affordable housing, including flexible forms of rental and mortgage assistance, subsidized housing, and supportive housing programs that provide financial assistance for housing as well as supportive services.

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The partial shutdown of the federal government over President Donald Trump’s demand for funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, which lasted 35 days, also affected services and assistance low-income people need to secure and retain housing. Landlords began threatening people with eviction and delayed repairs due to fears about a lack of funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In some states, such as Maine, housing authorities said they wouldn’t release Section 8 vouchers. Federal workers were unable to provide support to people who needed help with fair housing complaints.

Bowen said that in addition to policies that address housing affordability, lawmakers need to address barriers to health care.

“Mental health conditions, trauma, substance use disorders, and other chronic health problems can both precede and result from homelessness. It’s hard to address homelessness without simultaneously addressing these health issues,” she said.

Kurzban said that public health is at stake for everyone when people have nowhere to live, no matter what time of year it is. Last year, the Seattle-King County Public Health Department investigated outbreaks of serious infectious diseases among unhoused people.

“Large unhoused populations lead to a lot of problems for all of us, such as public health risks — series of outbreaks related to communicable diseases that could have been prevented if people were housed,” he said. “It’s really a problem we all should have an interest in and we can address it if we have the political will to create a more equitable society.”