Winter is Hell

I walked in the office the other day and Craig, one of our most seasoned volunteers, was talking to the paid staff. I caught the tail end of the conversation.

“Y’all just don’t know. Winter is coming. It’s bad around here in the wintertime. Y’all just don’t know. Winter is coming, and it ain’t no joke.”

Craig told me, “They don’t know what it means to work here in the winter, Hugh, and I was trying to tell them. It’s no joke around here in the winter. Winter is hard.”

I agreed. Winter is hell.

Don’t get me wrong – this work is stressful. Always. The problems our community faces year-round are exasperating, and I’m not trying to diminish them. But winter is its own special kind of hell.

The most senior person currently on staff at Love Wins (other than myself) began near the end of March. We have two other employees that have started more recently than her. They’re all great, and I am lucky to work with them.

But none of them have known what it is to do this work in the wintertime.

So I tried to explain.

To start with, my people die in the wintertime. Not a winter goes by that we don’t lose someone to the cold temperatures, to hypothermia, or to suicide. Then there are the random accidents, like trees falling on tents or people getting hit by cars. The deaths are that much more horrible, however, in that people are less active, so sometimes bodies aren’t found for days. Last year, we lost three folks we all knew.

Just because you are homeless doesn’t mean you are immune to Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Thedepression-20195_640 lack of sunshine, the grey days and the frequent rain affect us all. Riding out the storm in a damp tent, in the dark, in the cold, does nothing to improve your mood.

Being homeless in the wintertime means watching the weather like a hawk – when it is expected to get below freezing overnight, they open the shelters to everyone, so you are at least guaranteed a warm safe space to try to sleep. On those nights it means lining up outside the shelters, standing in the cold until the regular shelter guests have finished their evening meal. It also means the bitter disappointment you feel when the overnight temperature isn’t expected to get below 35 degrees, because there is every bit as real a chance of dying in 35 degree weather as there is 32 degree weather.

It’s hard for our community, but it’s hard for us, too.

In the wintertime, you know the harsh reality of closing time, when it is 38 degrees outside, there is a slight drizzle, and it’s five o’clock. Closing time. It’s near dark outside, and you have to tell people with no place to go that they cannot stay here. You give hugs at the door, lock the door behind them as they leave, and you get in your car. You turn the heater on and drive past the sad parade of your friends as they walk soddenly to the bus stop. You go home to your warm house and hot meal.

You feel horrible when guests ask about your Thanksgiving plans, and you tell them about the big meal at your family’s house. You describe the warm embrace of family and the expectancy of the love you will feel. When you ask what they are doing, they tell you about the turkey dinner at the mission they are going to. They hope to take a bag lunch home with them.

You feel worse when you realize that they don’t feel bad about that conversation.

They are really happy for you.

The donations that come in when it is cold save lives – the hats and coats and gloves are so needed and so appreciated. However, we have no storage for them, so they pile up everywhere there is a horizontal surface. For about three months our open floor plan office will look like a hoarder’s paradise, with boxes stacked high and little pathways cut through the clutter.

The normal calm of community melts away, too, when the guests are constantly clamoring for warm things, and you cease to be a builder of community and instead become a dispenser of goods.

You try not to think that the eight hours you were open, eight hours that you wanted to end so you could go home…those were the best eight hours they were going to have.

Winter is coming, y’all. And it ain’t no joke.

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Hugh Hollowell

Author: Hugh Hollowell

Hugh is a Mennonite minister and the founding director of Love Wins. He likes peanut M&Ms.