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As Congress Waits, America Freezes

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by Donald Whitehead

In January 2010, 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.

NCH’s Winter Services report in 2010 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 to the CDC’s recommendations for preventing hyperthermia.

Last year in Los Angeles, despite the typical sunshine and mild temperatures, five homeless people died of causes that included, or were complicated by, hypothermia, surpassing San Francisco and New York City, which each reported two deaths. Over the last three years, 13 people have died at least partly because of the cold in LA, the coroner’s office said. And advocates worry that increased cold, rainy winter will mean more fatalities.

This year, the pandemic will exacerbate these issues. The country is facing an explosion of individuals entering the homeless system as eviction moratoria and unemployment benefits expire. In the past faith-based organizations have come to the rescue in many cities providing Hypothermia Shelters on their properties. This year many of those faith-based facilities are shuttered due the rising number of COVID-19 cases nationwide. Even with the expected approval of a COVID vaccine before the end of 2020, it will take at least six to nine months to implement.

It is vitally important that communities utilize Cares Act Funds and ESG to house those living on the streets. As Congress waits America Freezes. Please call your Congressperson and ask them to pass a stimulus bill now.

Criminalizing poverty during a public health crisis

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By Annie Leomporra

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) came out with their recommendation on how to address homeless encampments during the COVID pandemic. The CDC statement read that

… if individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living in encampments to remain where they are. Encourage people living in encampments to increase space between people and provide hygiene resources in accordance with the Interim Guidance for People Experiencing Unsheltered Homelessness

Image by Western Regional Advocacy Project

For advocates and people experiencing homelessness, this was an exciting statement that spoke to what we all know to be the truth, that homelessness is a public health emergency and that sweeps exacerbate health risks for those living outdoors. The CDC recommended providing access to clean water, hand washing stations, bathrooms, and regular trash pick up for people living outdoors. We thought maybe this would be an opportunity for communities across this country to re-think encampment sweeps, and the criminalization of homelessness. For a little while, in many communities, that is what happened. 

Meanwhile, due to funding cuts and social distancing restrictions, massive congregate shelters had to downsize their occupancy. Some people got transferred to hotels/motels or other services while others went outdoors. Further, as the pandemic economic downturn started to cause real hardship, more folks were forced to seek emergency housing assistance. With shelters at capacity, more people were forced outdoors and after just a few short months, municipalities across this country resumed encampment sweeps, going against CDC guidelines. 

Encampment sweeps aren’t the only thing that continued, the criminalization of ‘quality of life crimes’ came back in full force. In Hawaii, the Civil Beat, reported that the city of Honolulu received $38 million in CARES Act, and the Honolulu Police Department received at least $16 million of that for overtime pay. This overtime pay is suppose to be used to enforce they current mayor’s pandemic rules, however those who were most cited happened to be people experiencing homelessness.

One man has been cited nearly 100 times since March for 199 supposedly pandemic related violations. He has also received 37 tickets for quality of life crimes. Once someone receives a citation they are required to appear in court. A missed court appearance can turn into a bench warrant and lead into an arrest. In citing people experiencing homelessness for little else than not having anywhere to quarantine or social distance, the city of Honolulu not only is being incredibly cruel, but it is creating a dangerous situation for health of the entire community. 

The National Coalition for the Homeless urges localities put into practice the CDC guidelines on unsheltered homeless, and protect this vulnerable population from unnecessary risk of COVID infection, especially as the weather turns cold. We also demand that cities and states end of the practice of criminalizing poverty and homelessness!

You Don’t Need a Home to Vote: Following up on the homeless vote in 2020

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Thank you to all people who have experienced homelessness who took the time to make their vote count in the 2020 elections! Thank you also to the advocates who worked to ensure that voting was accessible to those experiencing housing instability. As our community relies on government-funded programs and services to provide critical needs, it is critical that we all make our voices heard, not just in elections, but in keeping our elected officials accountable to those most in need after being elected!

If you have a few minutes, please share with us what your experience was like voting this year, or in assisting others to register and cast their vote:

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