Frigid Weather Puts Homeless at Risk

Yves here. Although the current spell of nasty cold weather isn’t unusual by the standards of three decades ago, in the intervening years we’ve also had a big increase in homelessness, which means a lot more people are at risk of freezing to death.

This Real News Network stresses that the rise in homelessness is the direct result of the reduction of funding of affordable housing since the Carter Administration. And stagnant wages plus the lousy job market since the financial crisis also means more people are living on the streets or in their cars. A third culprit that is operative in Manhattan and I assume other major cities is the near-complete disappearance of single-room-occupancy housing which has been converted to other uses. These weren’t just a mainstay for men in low-wage jobs or getting by on Social Security; it also provided a stopgap for people who had emergencies.

As for homeless shelters, the intermittent press accounts indicate that most people avoid them; they are considered unsafe (the few goods you have on your person may be stolen) and the hours are very restricted (certain check in and lights out/wake up times).

This post, with a report from a woman who had been in and out of shelters, gives a flavor of the conditions. Some extracts:

In my late fifties, with no prospect of reemployment, I recently had my first experiences with two of these.

I’ve worked all my life and been my only support all my life. It was my preference to do this, rather than derive any part of my upkeep from the wages of the person I slept with. My “crime” was doing this while female. Since sex discrimination has become legal again, I was forced out of a profession that’s been redefined as historically male, and have not been hired for female entry level positions due to my age and “overqualified” background.

I did everything I could, including backpacking into legal sites in the state parks in the mountains here, to keep from going into a shelter, but in the end could not even afford the gas to drive the fifteen or so miles round trip to the park from where any prospect of work existed. (“Obamaville” tent villages are not possible the way Hoovervilles were – the times are so much more pitiless that almost every city has ordinances against such places, and where they’re allowed, they’re controlled to the point of being worse than the shelters. The infamous “tent in the woods” near any urban area is out of the question for a woman unless she attaches herself to a homeless male for protection).

The shelter itself was physically considered to be one of the best in the state. It administers most of the charitable and many of the government resources for five counties. It is new, the fixtures are more than adequate and the meals are very good. A major problem was precisely the punitive “poor house” attitude: the Calvinistic view the women who administered the shelter had towards those who needed its services….. Residents must line up to take a breathalyser test in the common area when coming in in the late afternoon, everyone must be inside the shelter by 6:00 p.m., no one is allowed out after that time without written permission, and everyone is locked out of their rooms at 8:00 a.m. on weekdays and 9:00 a.m. on weekends. Women’s rooms had four permanent beds and lockers, but usually had two more folding beds crammed into the walkway at the foot of the beds. The men’s rooms were larger but had eight residents…

Residents were required to work on a “plan” towards permanent housing with one of the administrators. Such “plans” necessarily required a job. These women reproduced the sexism of the larger society: in addition to there being more beds for men than for women, living conditions were kept as much as possible from interfering with any man’s job who has one. Their “plans” for men were much more realistic as well, in that the men had more of a chance of finding work, even when they had, as the majority there did, a prison record. Their “plans” for women pretty much amounted to: you screwed up by not selecting a good enough (or any) husband, any job is better than no job at all, no matter how ill paid, discriminatory or demeaning, and your stay limit without a job is 30 days. Their ranking for women was below men in services, respect and resources and within that ranking, women with children came first and women without children were at the very bottom.

Her embittered tone results in part from the fact that she found a night shift job on her own which she then lost because she was unable to sleep (short version is that the staff would accommodate men with night shift jobs but not women). Back to her report:

Women with dangerous mental problems were also put into the regular woman’s dorm. One had kept the other women in the room terrorized before I stayed there. She also kept them up all night because she alone was allowed to sleep there during the day (due to her mental illness!), while they had to be up and out on the streets or at their jobs, as one resident was, by eight. She had been committed before for cutting up residents’ clothes with a knife; she was recommitted again just after I got there.

The official policy towards aggression and threats among residents was zero tolerance. The actual policy was to let the rats eat the other rats and to shoot the ones that came running to the administrators. The administrators had their favorites, usually those that made the class divide most evident, and the less well off and less educated paid staff did as well, usually those most expert at currying favor and those with whom they identified. The atmosphere resembled a combination between what I imagine prison must be and the type of unskilled job where the boss just above entry level uses his or her position more for petty gratification than anything else.

The treatment of the homeless will be a key indicator for judging whether New York’s new “liberal” mayor Bill de Blasio is “all hat, no cattle” or the real deal. My bet is on the former.

More at The Real News

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  1. middle seaman

    We accept homelessness the way we accept lack of health care services. Society has decided, knowingly or not, to resemble wild animals. We fight for food, or goods, and regard the losers as inferior. The only difference between wild animals and us is that we prohibit kill; we do accept violence quite readily. Example: banks behave violently towards their clients.

    Even our education system consists on winners and losers. If you lack the resources to live in a nice neighborhood, your kids will get an inferior education. We wish De Blasio the best, but he has to fight a stubborn system that likes it the way it is. Good luck!

    1. Anon y Mouse

      > We accept homelessness the way we accept lack of health care services. Society has decided, knowingly or not, to resemble wild animals.

      Who is this “we” and “society” you speak of?

      Is there no difference between those with power, making the decisions you are talking about, and those without power? Is the homeless author of the post that Yves cites part of this “we” that that has “decided” to “accept” homelessness? Is Yves?

  2. Martin Finnucane

    The poor, destitute, unemployed, and most especially the homeless are to be punished for their condition. Their existence and status belies the myth of prosperity upon which the American middle class – the most ideologized population on the planet – subsists. Unless, that is, we adopt the corollary myth that the poor are poor because they are bad, and hence properly subject to punishment. So we maintain the illusion of opportunity by strategically hating those have been denied it. Further, when I myself fall on hard times, then I simply know that I have been denied the opportunity rightfully due to me by the machinations of the no-account poor and their elite liberal enablers. As the prosperity myth continues to fray, the ideological reaction becomes more intense, and more divorced from both fact and common human decency. This process may well continue until the vaunted middle class is itself finally liquidated.

  3. Ulysses

    Our new mayor may still turn out to be mostly “hat and no cattle,” but he’s already better than Bloomberg:
    “Mayor de Blasio’s new administration acted quickly to re-instate “Code Blue” shelter guarantees for homeless families seeking shelter – overturning a dangerous and much-criticized policy shift made by the Bloomberg administration that turned away families from the shelter door during sub-freezing cold.”

  4. NotTimothyGeithner

    The Republican elite* hate the homeless because they hate people, and the Democratic elite and their followers hate the homeless because they are reminders that their embrace of incrementalism, small-minded politics, and elevation of bland canards to pearls of time-tested wisdom have largely resulted in poor results and would imply that their tribe is not intrinsically wonderful.

    *I’ve come to the conclusion the GOP is a bit more complicated than I had believed last year at this time, and I do believe there is a disconnect between the followers which goes back to the Southern Strategy and Newt’s take over of the GOP selection process and the traditional GOP elite (Romney, 41-types) which I didn’t give the time to. The neo-cons are there too, and they represent a different dimension.

  5. LAS

    Recently I worked on a report on the mortality experience of homeless persons in NYC using data from the NYC Dept of Health and Hygiene, recorded deaths and census data. First, actually, in NYC and many other cities beside there are several homeless shelter systems, one for families and one for single adults. Since society is reluctant to see families with children out on the street, the families get more consistent treatment and higher odds of a pathway to permanent housing over about a 6 month period (not to say it’s easy). On the other hand, there are just not enough beds for the homeless single adult population and many of the single adults cycle in and out of shelters repeatedly in part due to this fact; their pathway to housing through the shelter system is less supportive and rather unlikely. Nevertheless the mortality experience of homeless single adults is much better inside the shelter system than out on the street. Out on the street a homeless person has 2-3 times the risk of premature death and not just from weather exposure – although that is a big factor. Inside the shelter, some of them have less risk of premature death than the housed community (Black persons) because they can get some basic medical care so many of the housed individuals go without because they can’t afford it due to near poverty. Although fewer in number than single homeless men, single homeless women are particularly at risk. I just wish that people who need to use the social safety net might do so without having to feel humiliated about it. The shelter systems do save lives and might be even better if there were more robust pathways to affordable housing and less humiliation associated with using them.

  6. 2little2late

    It’s bad out there, really bad. And not just for those who’ve been on the margin for years. Add to those rolls the millions of folks who’ve found themselves, through no fault of their own, using zippers for front doors, or now living in unheated basements of relatives/friends, all thanks to the fraud perped on them by the TBTF and their blatant, admin – ordained fraudulent foreclosures. No advanced society would approve of this madness. From my view, there appears to be no civilized life left in America.

    I speak from experience. Having spent my last dime this week in an attempt at keeping my travel trailer from imploding due to frigid conditions, I’m now at the end of commerce. I have no resources left, and am unable to find any work – anywhere. In a visit to the county social services office, I was told that their winter heating assistance program ended just after Christmas. One wonders if they’re aware that winter started only a week or so before? And although some here will undoubtedly argue that I could always find work at a convenience store or Walmart, it’s just not possible if in fact you, like me, drive an old Dodge Hemi and want to also eat on occasion. The two are mutually exclusive.

    Watching the explosion of fraud by corporate America over the last few decades, and seeing it increase exponentially over the last half decade, gave me hope that the masses would finally awaken and demand corrective measures. I’m now down to the realization that it will take many millions more fraudulent acts and the resulting victims before people stir enough to demand the change necessary to right these wrongs, or to overthrow those who are holding reign so tight.

    For many of us in America today, saving for the future means scraping together enough change to buy another brood lamp or space heater to keep warm in cars, campers, basements or tents. Although it may seem callous on my part, I look forward to the rest of you joining us in the struggle so that we can get on with a revolution proper.

    1. ChrisCairns

      Sorry you are doing things tough, mate. Been there too.

      A true measure of a just and civilized society is how well it looks after our most vulnerable. Sad to see how things really are there. Friends of mine have just visited Hawaii and were shocked at the sheer volume of people sleeping on the street. Wasn’t like that when I went there in the early 90s. At least it is warm there.

      Take care and don’t lose hope.

      1. newyorker

        On a visit there we took a car around the perimeter. The entire leeward (drier) side is parkland unavailable to tourists, having been taken over by heavily polynesian homeless, living much like their ancestors before being evicted by white invaders, rxcept with tents, tapping the light poles for power. They use the park facilities for toiletssnd bathe in the ocean.

        I understand that most lf these folks work but can’t afford a house or apt. This in a place whose climate allows for flimsier and cheaper construction than the rest of the usa. Much land is held undeveloped by a land trust there, but there is such a housing shortage there that even wage earners are pushed out. At the time they had been forcably pushed out of the parks in honolulu so as not to spook the tourists.

      1. Avg John

        Thank you, Yves. Your reply reaching out to this person led to a tear on my cheek I’m embarrassed to say. And thanks for keeping the very poor as headline news on your community pages. I wish more media sources would shove this in America’s face and remind them they could be next. I don’t believe we can ever fix America again, until we take care of the least of God’s children first.

      2. tiebie66

        Yves, I’ve made a small donation. If it is possible to pass something on to 2little2late, please do. If not, please retain, you and this site are an international treasure. I’m sorry I cannot help more, as I’ve made other prior commitments to help that are constraining my cash flow. To 2little2late, others struggling to get through every day, and those caring for them: hang in there!

    2. F. Beard

      I’m sorry for your hardship and yes indeed it is unjust.

      Let’s hope the revolution is non-violent and that it does not replace one set of tyrants with another as is so often the case.

    3. dimmsdale

      I made a comment on another site to the effect that Republican demonization of the tax-collection process (and even of its fundamental necessity) has led to local and state governments helping people (if they indeed consider it a job requirement, and certainly many don’t) both on the cheap, and almost on the sly–to keep anti-tax voters pacified. (that sentence needs structural work, but I ain’t got time). I feel like there almost needs to be a “Tax Me to Help Others” counter-movement–I’d be thrilled to pay higher local and state taxes, if I never had to see another homeless family again. But then, I’m working (at the moment)…and everybody knows how awash in cash and frivolous luxury the elite are. I’m looking at a looming layoff myself, and have pulled back a bit on contribs to homeless orgs, foot banks, etc. in the short term (we’ll see what happens in the next couple of months). I’m sure glad to hear from David Brooks et al. that the economic crisis is over!

  7. Eclair

    On Monday afternoon at Denver’s Catholic Worker House, the calls from people seeking shelter came in at regular intervals. Saturday, we had had a heavy snow, then the temperature plunged into the negative numbers on Sunday night. Monday night was predicted to go negative again.

    Most of the calls were from families. Or moms with children. One call came from a 7-month pregnant woman and her partner. They would not be considered a “family” until the child actually arrived and Denver has one room- one – that allows couples to stay together. That’s at the Catholic Worker House.

    Our couples room has housed the married, the common-law, the committed. Hetero-sex and same-sex couples. But, it’s one room. In the entire city and suburban area of Denver – one room.

    Our “family room” currently shelters a mom and dad and their four children, ages 2 to 12. We also shelter two single men, two single women, and a couple. Plus the two full-time live-in “workers,” soon to be four. Every space in the house is full.

    I channel my rage and despair into making biscuits to top an enormous pan of turkey pot pie for dinner. Comfort food.

  8. Lambert Strether

    On the headline: That’s not a bug. It’s a feature.

    Neo-liberalism, as a philosophy, teaches that those whose are not adept at extracting and accumulating wealth are worthy of death. This is often called “innovation.”

    Though Lloyd Blankfein called it “Doing God’s work.” No doubt there are other synonyms, equally anodyne.

    1. F. Beard

      Amen. But the money system (government-enabled credit creation) encourages wealth extraction and concentration by the banks and so-called creditworthy.

      If Progressives ever seriously threatened the banking cartel, its defenders would instantly see the wisdom of much greater government assistance to its victims.

    2. newyorker

      Yeah, it’s a feature. But the woman quoted is a total misfit in this social darwinist a more enlightened time, as recently as the 70’s, she would have been picked up by CETA funded services as an easy job placement. I guess not any more.

      This is the beguinning of the end, when an educated woman with presumably all her marbles is neglected as a result of a bleak new social contract that’s sneaking up on all of us. Here’s a lesson for us all: don’t alienate your family and try to be born in a rich one.

  9. direction

    Yes. My friend runs a performance venue in a warehouse next to the local food kitchen. She lets the homeless sleep on the porch there. A man named Robert died as the cold snap came through. he probably had some alcohol in his system. She wrote a letter to the local paper and got some attention raised. Thanks for posting on the issue. Many people forget about the homeless population if they don’t see them around and homeless women (for safety reasons) often hide away in the bushes.

  10. wendy

    Through my local Humanist group here in NJ, I’ve recently learned of a tent city nearby, in Lakewood. Helping organize a mid-week lunch donation, I found they actually have a website ( and even a Facebook page.
    This cold these past few days has been terrifying me for them. I hope they are able to get to warming stations, temporarily if not overnight.

  11. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thank you for this post, Yves. Saw the human misery on one of the major national news broadcasts yesterday evening, but no mention of the fatalities.

  12. F. Beard

    The only choices our money system gives us is be a villain or be a victim; steal or be stolen from, loot or be looted.

    Designed in Hell it was or else Satan is envious.

  13. AbyNormal

    ive been homeless…im pretty sure i will be again. i haven’t slept a night without thinking about the homeless feeling that sharp burn…which is really the cold stabbing at your senses. our flag can’t dare touch the ground but no problem with the citizens. this is hell, friends…and its cold.

    “We are homeless enough in this world under the best of circumstances without going to any special effort to test our capacity to be more so.”
    Harold Edmund Stearns, The confessions of a Harvard man : the street I know revisited : a journey through literary Bohemia, Paris & New York in the 20s & 30s

    “Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire, and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless starving wretch to lay him down and die. Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.”
    Dickens, Oliver Twist

  14. P. M.

    The remark about people’s attitudes toward the poor reminds me of a conversation I had back in college with my roommate at the time. This is at an Ivy League school, mind you, where I thought people were a little more enlightened (not so).

    We were watching the early presidential election coverage back in 2007 and my roommate said “Why would you want to vote for a Democrat anyway?” Having what I now view as a very uninformed view on politics I said “because they help people. they protect the poor.” (hah!) Her reply?

    “Why would you want to help poor people? It’s their FAULT that they’re poor.”

    Many of the wealthy entitled brats I went to school with in the Ivy League seemed to have that same disgusting viewpoint, I might add.

    1. Carla

      Why wouldn’t they have it? The whole “culture” shares it. Sometimes I think it comes down to plain fear. “That could be my family. That could be me.” And indeed it could. Fear does not seem to bring out the best in us, which is unfortunate, because there seems to be plenty of fear to go around.

      Thank you, Yves, for this post, and for your generous response to 2little2late.

  15. Another1BitesTheDust

    This post caught my attention because it is chillingly reminiscent of my own experience.

    In November 2012, I was in dire need of shelter. In 2013, I reached out to my State Representative to report abuses I had witnessed and experienced at a shelter facility in town which receives federal, state, and municipal funding.

    He didn’t take me seriously, mocked my concerns, and stalled me. His aide finally sent me a contact email for a third party in state agency. To this day, the contact has never responded to my allegations, and to my knowledge, there has never been an investigation. No one’s been held accountable, and there is still no oversight at this facility.

    Recently, one of our Senators arranged for an “article” about his efforts to understand the homelessness issue. It is quite telling who he chose as a subject as it dovetails nicely with the new push toward supportive housing as opposed to housing subsidies.

    It is most unfortunate that, in 2012, my pleas for housing and job development assistance were rebuffed. I was told that unless I had an income (from a disability or a job), or in lieu, a mental health or substance abuse issue, I would not receive housing assistance.

    As far as employment, my Bachelor’s Degree, recent paralegal training, and new significant student debt were all disregarded, and I was told to get a job in the thriving (albeit low-wage and dead-end) service sector.

    In 2013, while still without housing, I landed a paralegal job, albeit low-wage, but with potential for growth. By then, my 23-year-old car on which I depended to get to work and which needed to run reliably so I could seek additional employment, began failing and required repairs/replacement.

    It was tragic that even after I obtained a job, my multiple requests for a car repair/replacement program and a mobile housing subsidy were neglected. Ideally, what I needed was a housing voucher, so I could move around to where the good-paying jobs were.

    It is now 2014 and, predictably, my abysmal situation has deteriorated. Regrettably, I have lost my paralegal job, my car has been completely immobilized, and I’m stranded in an unstable cough surfing situation with virtual strangers.

    At least I’m not back in a shelter. Yet.

    I have not succeeded in getting housing or auto repairs in time to avert disaster, nor have I managed to hold onto my job. I tried. I really did. I have, however, succeeded in infuriating local city and state officials, agency personnel, and organizational and church leaders.

    They are now preying on my complete vulnerability and dependency, and are engaging in a campaign of intimidation and revenge.

    So much for speaking truth to power.

  16. Ché Pasa

    At the very least, dozens have died out in the cold or in unheated “housing” so far — reports vary somewhat wildly on how many have perished since the freeze began — and there will no doubt be dozens or hundreds or many, many more deaths before this winter is done. Americans, by and large, will be oblivious, not so much because they don’t care — I think they do — as it will be because they won’t “know” about it. They won’t see it with their own eyes, they won’t experience the suffering directly, they won’t hear much more than garbled and incomplete reports on the “news.”

    So long as that’s the case — and it has been the case for decades — little will be done. The lost lives will be dismissed as “unfortunate” but “unavoidable” (they would have been lost anyway, wouldn’t they? Substance abuse, mental illness, etc, too bad, so sad…) The survivors will be given a nod or two — Oh, aren’t they brave! Aren’t they strong! And aren’t they examples for us all! The Homeless Service Industry might or might not get a modest injection of funds — for next winter — and nothing much will change.

    It’s been this way for so long now… I was sheltering homeless refugees who were terrified of going to “official” facilities more than 20 years ago. The situation has not improved since then, it’s deteriorated sharply despite the many efforts of good-hearted souls to help, and despite gobs of money poured into “services” for the homeless — services which too often are made deliberately inaccessible to those most in need.

    It’s a monstrous system in every way.

  17. Wake Up America!

    Like 2little2late, I ended up on the wrong end of a fraudulent foreclosure. It has been over 2 1/2 years and although I’m working, I’m still trying to dig myself out of the hole our “financial system” has dug for me.

    Oddly enough, work brought me to the scene of the crime – Manhattan. There are plenty of apartments out there for rent. That is if you can afford a couple of thousand a month for a 1br and have a FICO score of 700+. Because in this insane system we live under, your FICO score (AKA Debt Slave Score) determines whether you’ll have a place to live and how much you’ll pay for the privilege.

    There are plenty of single room occupancy opportunities in Manhattan. Craigslist and AirBNB are littered with them. If you’re lucky, you’ll find something that isn’t a scam and will pay at minimum $100 per night. I’ve been lucky to find several situations close to my place of employment that will accept me and my two large dogs (I’ve lost everything else – no way I’m losing them). In every situation, I find people that have to rent out rooms by the night, usually to multiple strangers in order to pay the rent. It is often an awkward and strange situation for both “innkeeper” and “guest.”

    So, even though I have a solid, decent paying job I cannot find a permanent place to call home.

    As 2little2late states, there are many of us out there. Unfortunately, many are so beaten down by the struggle of trying to survive day to day that there will be no energy to put behind a revolution.

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