Winter can seem like the most dangerous time of the year for the homeless. But actually, homeless individuals face a lot of unique challenges all through the year, from snow to heat.
People living on the streets need your help all year round. Here are the Top 5 ways summer is dangerous for the homeless, and what you can do to help.
For the homeless, turning on the AC during a hot day isn’t an option. If they can’t find a restaurant or store where they can get in out of the sun, they stand at increased risk for hyperthermia or heat stroke. On days when it’s 95 degrees outside or more, that’s deadly.
Restaurants and stores often have a “Customers Only” policy that put the homeless at a severe disadvantage when it comes to cooling off. When there’s a Hyperthermia alert on, libraries and public fountains serve as critical oases for the homeless.
Sadly, mental illness is something a large part of the homeless population lives with and medication can mess with the way the human body reacts to heat. Antidepressants can prevent the body from sweating or prevent the blood flow to the skin from increasing, which puts them at greater risk of overheating.
The heat will also exacerbate any breathing problems. This disproportionately affects the homeless, who often suffer from respiratory infections.
It's a common misconception that cold exposure is the deadliest weather the homeless face; dehydration during the summer is actually a bigger cause of death.
Staying hydrated during the heat is super important as dehydration can worsen pre-existing health conditions. Having ready access to fresh water is a luxury many people don’t have when they are barred from public restaurants and stores, and lakes and rivers don’t count.
The homeless are often on their feet all day long, and the hot weather can lead to severe athlete’s foot, pitted keratolysis, ingrown toe nails, and more.
These kind of problems are easy to avoid with proper footwear and consistently clean, dry socks, but many homeless individuals struggle to keep just one or two pairs with them, let alone clean.
Bugs like mosquitoes and ticks multiply during the summer, and while they can be annoying for everyone, they can be especially dangerous for the homeless trying to find a safe place to sleep in a park or wooded area.
Without adequate protection like bug spray, these insects can keep someone up all night, cause infection, or spread diseases. Since many homeless people lack access to good healthcare, early signs of something wrong can either be not recognized or ignored.
While summer can be full of hidden dangers, the good news is that there are lots of ways to help the homeless beat the heat:
Winter is the hardest time for our homeless community. When the temperature dips below freezing it creates a severe risk for hypothermia, and the consequences can be fatal. Thankfully, DC has a long-standing law that requires the city to provide shelter for the homeless when the temperature is below 32 degrees.
While the city does its part, there are many things we can do to help the homeless survive this winter. Here are the 5 most effective ways you can help the homeless in our community.
It doesn't do much good to provide shelter if the people who need it most don't know where to go.
Find out where you can point people to stay when it's too cold outside. Many already know, but there are also many homeless individuals who struggle with mental illness and need help to get there.
Life is hard on the streets. Many who sleep outside are at constant risk of having things stolen, without many opportunities to wash clothing (Thrive DC is one of only six places that provides free showers and free laundry).
When you donate warm coats, hats, scarves, and gloves you ensure that our homeless community has what they need to survive.
If you have surplus gear you would like to donate, please contact Greg at (202) 503-1528 or inkind@ThriveDC.org.
Shelters and homeless outreach programs are busiest during the winter months. More people are coming in for meals, referral services, clothing, and shelter. You can support homeless case managers on the front lines by making a special donation during the winter months, or signing up to provide a recurring donation throughout the year that they can count on.
With an increase in clients, social service staff can become overwhelmed in the winter. Even signing up for one volunteer shift a month at a shelter or kitchen can make it easier for the staff to see more clients. If you would like to volunteer at Thrive DC individually or with a group, please contact Greg at (202) 503-1528 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
No one has to be homeless. Montgomery County has ended chronic homelessness among veterans by using a strategy called "Housing First." It's been proven as an effective and cheap way to help people who have fallen on hard times get their lives back together. While it's becoming more popular, we need more voices advocating for cities to commit to this strategy.
Housing First is just one issue for homeless advocates. There are many systemic causes that contribute to people becoming homeless such as a low minimum wage, lack of affordable housing, and an insufficient safety net. I encourage you to talk to the people you meet on the streets and in shelters to see what they consider a priority!
At Thrive DC we have great respect for our clients. They are survivors! Their story matters. They fight back despite a lack of shelter and face challenge after challenge, often with no network to lend support.
For first time volunteers, it can be hard to see our clients for who they are underneath the surface issues of clothing, smell, attitude, or situation. Many of our volunteers are meeting the homeless for the first time! They come with natural expectations and stereotypes, and often leave Thrive DC with a powerful experience of getting to know real people, not stereotypes.
However, those who have a negative experience often have the same criticism: that clients did not say “thank you” when volunteers were serving them meals or distributing coffee or toiletries.
Expecting positive feedback can be toxic for volunteers as service work does not require the person being served to be grateful. It can create a bad experience for the volunteer and a bad environment for the client who needs most of all a safe space and welcoming atmosphere.
Thrive DC works with a community that is struggling and needs advocates. Hearing volunteers give negative feedback about those they serve is discouraging, since it means we failed to help them get engaged and they missed out on the opportunity to get to know amazing people.
With that in mind, here are our Top 5 ways to have a great volunteer experience:
Openness: Being comfortable with strangers is not easy. But a big smile and eye contact go a long way to making people feel comfortable. Body language is a huge part of communication. Disinterested volunteers stand out to staff and clients and look unapproachable.
Acceptance: Volunteers that keep from passing judgment find connections with our clients. Our clients may be hard to understand or have trouble understanding you. But accepting what they have to offer can lead to amazing discoveries!
Invest: Investing a portion of your time to conversation is huge! Be genuine. Start with a compliment or discuss your journey. The memories you make when serving others are not easily forgotten! Discovering a shared interest is a beautiful experience.
Learn: Coming with questions adds to the experience. Many of our clients are open to sharing about their lives or situations. And they have lots of questions about you! Getting to know someone is often a two-way street.
Initiative: Hard workers catch the attention of staff and clients! Great volunteers have a can-do attitude. They look for things to do and this is noticed, appreciated, and reciprocated.