It’s been a warm fall for us here in North Carolina so far. Last night was the first really hard freeze, hitting the twenties. Over the next eight days, that will happen five times.
I know – it probably gets colder than that where you live. I know – y’all have “real winters.” I know all that.
But I also know that hypothermia kills people, and hypothermia can happen when the surrounding air gets to 50 degrees or lower. When it gets cold, people who are living outside – especially people who have compromised immune systems from the trauma their bodies have endured, who are at subpar nutrition levels, who are insufficiently rested, who have drank alcohol, or who lack sufficient clothing or cold weather gear – those people sometimes die.
It happens every winter. Every single winter I have done this work, someone I know dies outside.
Before you ask – yes, they do open the shelter doors to everyone on those nights it gets below 32 degrees so, theoretically at least, they can go indoors and be warm. They call those White Flag nights. I say theoretically, because there are a number of reasons you may not want to go into the shelter.
For example, you may not want to seek shelter if:
- You are part of a heterosexual couple, as there are no co-ed emergency shelters. Maybe you are fine with going into a shelter 2 miles away from your partner, that they have to walk to get to on the coldest day of the year so far, but most folks are not. So they stay outside, where at least they can be together.
- You have PTSD (which is extremely common in the homeless population) and people screaming in their sleep, being crowded into hallways to sleep on glorified yoga mats and zero privacy is triggering to you.
- You have lost everything you own multiple times (which is pretty much everyone in the homeless population) and the last three times you stayed at the shelter, your stuff was stolen because there isn’t secure places to lock up your things – especially on a white flag night when they far exceed capacity.
- You are afraid to leave your things at your campsite unattended, because you have had everything you own stolen the last time you did that.
- You have a history of trauma (which is everyone who is experiencing homelessness) and as a result, are plagued by insomnia on the best of nights. You believe that you are more likely to actually sleep if you stay in your tent, and remember, there is no sleeping in, or taking a nap later to catch up. In the City of Raleigh, it is illegal to sleep in public.
Those are only a few. In the last ten years, I have heard dozens of reasons, and all of them make sense to the people who name them. Heck, most of them make sense to me.
But still, none of that changes the fact that when it gets cold outside, people die.