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Response to Homelessness: Hot or Cold?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness

In January, NCH released a report on Winter Services that detailed extended shelter hours and other services that work to decrease the risk of hypothermia deaths among people who are homeless. Hypothermia refers to the life-threatening conditions that can occur when a person’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

HypERthermia is just the opposite referring to a myriad of conditions that can occur as a result of a person absorbing or producing more heat that the body can dissipate. Just as with hypothermia, people most at risk of hyperthermia are the young and elderly, those who have persistent medical conditions, and those exposed to extreme environmental conditions.

NCH’s Winter Services report found that 700 people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness are killed from hypothermia annually in the United States. A similar report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that looked at data from 1999 to 2003 found that on average 688 deaths each year were due to hyperthermia. While the CDC report does not mention the housing status of those who passed away due to heat-related illnesses, we can relate the risks to people who are homeless (my comments in italics) to the CDC’s recommendations for preventing hyperthermia:

Suggestion #1: Drink more fluids, regardless of your activity level.

Many people who are homeless do not have ready access to water. Restaurants will charge, soup kitchens may only be open at certain times during the day, there are fewer and fewer publicly accessible water fountains, can you imagine not having a refrigerator full of cold water or even a sink for tap water?

Suggestion #2: Don’t drink liquids that contain alcohol or large amounts of sugar.

Sodas can be cheaper than bottled water! People who are suffering from alcohol dependence are at particular risk for temperature-related illness.

Suggestion #3: Stay indoors and, if at all possible, stay in an air-conditioned place. If your home does not have air conditioning, go to the shopping mall or public library.

There are few day centers available for people experiencing homelessness, and often, people who “look” homeless (have lots of bags or who have not been able to shower or do laundry) are turned away from establishments like libraries and restaurants.

Suggestion #4: Electric fans may provide comfort, but when the temperature is in the high 90s, taking a cool shower or bath, or moving to an air-conditioned place is a much better way to cool off.

Electric fans (anything other than a small battery-operating or hand fan), taking a shower or air-conditioning are simply not options when you have no home.

Suggestion #5: Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.

Type of clothing is often not an option when you cannot pay for appropriate pieces or do not have somewhere secure to store clothing.

Some communities have stepped up efforts to prevent the risk of hyperthermia among people experiencing homelessness: the Arizona Department of Health Services published a guide on where to find cooling centers; a Columbia, South Carolina shelter has extended weekend hours to provide a cool refuge during the hot summer months; and DC opens cooling centers and emergency shower locations (though I’ve only heard from a couple of people who know about these).

But it seems that the level of response to heat emergencies is not matched even to the number of cold-weather emergency services available to people who are experiencing homelessness. Are we wrong about this? Does your community (homeless services or health departments) have cooling centers or make other extra efforts to ensure the homeless population has refuge from the summer heat? Let us know!

Other resources:
Change.org Post May 30, 2010 – How to Help the Homeless Beat the Heat
Health Care for the Homeless Council Hyperthermia factsheet

What Would Mitch Snyder Say and Do Today?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness

By Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing

Twenty years ago, the movement to end homelessness lost its most charismatic leader, Mitch Snyder. Snyder and Robert Hayes, NCH’s founder, are considered to be the two leading national homeless advocates in the 1980’s.

If Mitch were still alive today, I wonder what Mitch would do and say about how homelessness has become a way of American life and so acceptable by societal norms? Think homeless children, the elderly, or even veterans.

Mitch would definitely not be seen attending the proverbial annual homelessness conference where too few homeless people can be found. Nor would he spend a year to write a plan about ending homelessness ten years down the road.

Regardless of the political party in power, he would be pounding on the White House doors or jumping its gates and roaming the Halls of Congress shouting that people are literally dying homeless and action is needed now!

Mitch would be doing the same tried and proven effective tactics (living on the streets in solidarity with the homeless, using the media to prick the American conscience, civil disobedience, hunger fasts) that resulted in his shelter being opened and renovated, the passage of the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act in 1987, and in the gathering of 250,000 people (including 25,000 homeless people) for the 1989 Housing Now march here in Washington, DC.

While traditional lobbying is still essential, I wonder if Mitch’s tactics of the 1980’s should be resurrected in these troubled economic times? Probably yes.

His legacy is evident today at the Community for Creative Nonviolence shelter in Downtown DC that continues to save lives and is one of the few programs nationwide run by the homeless volunteers.

It can also be found in the legions of youth and homeless people that he inspired who are the homeless advocates, providers, volunteers, and donors today.

As time marches on, people still remember that there was some fiery homeless activist back in the 1980’s, but have forgotten his name. I always delight in letting people know his name. And without fail, that taxicab driver or shelter volunteer always speaks of their respect and admiration for Mitch who was willing to go to jail or even risk death by fasting for homeless people.

Do we need another national leader like Mitch? Probably not. Our movement now has many mini-leaders including homeless and formerly homeless people.

I just hope that there is a little bit of Mitch Snyder in all of us which keeps our eyes on the prize of stopping this injustice of homelessness in our midst.

Forget about how he died by suicide, but how he lived his life as a true blue advocate for the homeless.

See a young advocate’s perspective on Mitch Snyder’s legacy here, or read more about Mr. Snyder’s historical impact here.

A Young Advocate’s Perspective: Mitch Snyder

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness

On a late September day in 2009, I trekked from the NCH offices to make visit to the White House and happened, instead, upon a collection of people and a sign that read “61st Day of Fast.” I didn’t know such a thing was possible. Surely one would have to have died. I approached the group eagerly, wanting to know more. I was not only intrigued but in absolute awe of the dedication and stamina it must have taken.

More accurately, I was in awe until I saw the pot bellies and flush cheeks of the fasters who were resting on lawn chairs while another protester rambled incoherently into a bull horn. These were not the Ghandian thin protesters I thought of when I imagined a fight for justice. Enraged and grumbling to myself about being duped, I asked a volunteer from the group to explain what was going on. The fast, she explained was rotational. Each person fasted for a short period and was replaced by another group member. The result was a longer fasting period without any real danger to the fasters themselves.

To be fair to the group of fasters, I didn’t and don’t know anything substantial about their cause. Furthermore, my protest experience is comparatively limited; it certainly has never put my life in immediate danger or my body in prison, for that matter. That all said, I continue to hold a certain contempt for insincere protest. One may fast for one day, ten days, to death, if the cause calls for such action. But it is a slight to one’s own commitment to claim a 100-day fast because 100 men have each fasted 1 day each. The value of a protest, after all, is in its earnestness.

I was still bothered by my White House experience two weeks later, when, back at the NCH offices, Executive Director Neil Donovan was looking through a pile of materials from the 1980’s. “Is that Mitch?” he asked himself. “This must have been the second fast. Wow look at him.” Donovan’s voice was low, but the Wow was sincere enough to send another intern and I skidding across the room to see what was in his hand.

The picture Donovan held, which was taken in 1987, showed several people assisting a hollow-cheeked, empty-eyed man off the White House lawn. A flash of excitement went through me. This, I thought, this was activism with earnestness. And this, I learned was Mitch Snyder.

Whatever is said of Mitch Snyder, what should be remembered is that he was what one sees in this picture: stark, earnest. The image of a hollow-bodied, frail Snyder is frightening. It implies not only mortality but a belief in a cause that forgoes such idle human concern. It states faith that commands respect. This is protest as it should be, protest of belief and value.

Neil Donovan gave the photo one last look before handing it off to the small crowd of NCH staffers that had collected around him. The picture was passed around quickly with each person stealing a glimpse and a gasp before passing it off again. Immediately, anyone who knew anything about Snyder began to share it. And, as swiftly as the chatter began, it subsided and the staff returned to work.

This, it seems, is what is now lacking in the homelessness movement -or any movement for that matter. The ability to not only say, I believe, but to fight for that belief, time and again. It’s not my place to demand homeless advocates all begin to starve themselves. Protest of any kind is a matter of personal faith. I cannot and will not force earnestness upon others, such is a matter of free will. But earnestness appears to be fading with an older generation, and without it, so to an ability to make meaningful systemic change. No, I cannot force earnestness on others, but I have no doubt in my mind that it is time this generation of advocates found some. R.I.P. Mitch Snyder.

Read more about NCH’s reflections on Mitch Snyder’s legacy.

By Adam Sirgany, former NCH intern and Knox College (IL) ’11

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