Winter shuts out the homeless. As temperatures drop, finding shelter is tough, but necessary
New York — WINTER approaches with many signs here, but some of the most telling are in what cold weather means to the homeless. Now that temperatures have dipped, more homeless men and women sleep on the benches of subway stops. ``Cardboard condos'' are set up at the end of the platform.
In parks, city outreach workers talk to the homeless and give them information about shelters. Advocates for the homeless step up their discussion about the need for transitional and permanent housing, as opposed to emergency shelter.
Around the country - New Hampshire, New York, Minnesota, and Washington State - shelter providers and government officials talk about the special needs that emerge as winter arrives. Most underscore that the basic problems exist year-round.
Even warm-weather cities are affected by the North's cold weather; officials say many of the homeless migrate to these communities during the winter months. Partly in response to the influx, the Miami Police Department has proposed measures allowing vagrancy arrests.
In northern climates, the weather exaggerates and multiplies the unsafe, unhealthy circumstances of a homeless person's life, says Philip Brickner, director of community medicine at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York.
When the cold and wet hit, he says, the homeless endure harsh conditions outdoors, or they are forced to go to the public shelters that they avoid during more hospitable weather. Shelters are often crime-ridden and can be turbulent experiences for the residents.
``They disappear into the nooks and crannies of New York, or they sleep over grates,'' says Dr. Brickner. ``None are safe.''
Brickner endorses programs in several major Northern cities that seek to remove the homeless from the streets once the temperature moves below freezing.
In Minneapolis-St. Paul, where temperatures can reach 20 degrees below zero several days each winter, local officials make ``street hauls'' during the coldest weather, says Alexa Bradley of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. But there are always some homeless who choose to remain on the streets, she adds.
Ms. Bradley says there are ``probably close to enough beds'' for winter emergencies. She gives some credit for this to the lead Minnesota took in establishing transitional housing for the homeless in 1983. There are now about 30 programs statewide, funded primarily with grants, but also with some state money.
In Anoka County, north of Minneapolis, a worker from the county community-action program (CAP) found a homeless man living in a car in a grocery parking lot last week.
``That's not good this time of year in Minnesota,'' says Stephen Klein of the Anoka County CAP. The man was directed to one of the CAP's single-room occupancy programs, where he was to be evaluated to see what services he needs.
Says Mr. Klein of winter emergencies: ``We have resources to get people off the street. But in terms of referrals out to transitional or permanent housing, we've just made a small dent.''
In Manchester, N.H., there are about 1,000 homeless people, says Henrietta Charest of New Horizons for New Hampshire, which runs a shelter and soup kitchen. The one city shelter has been filled every night since July, she reports.
There are between 3,500 and 5,000 homeless on the streets of Seattle, says Martha Dilts, executive director of the Seattle Emergency Housing Services. There are only 1,200 to 1,500 shelter beds. Families make up more than a third of the homeless in Seattle, she estimates.
``In winter, families are more likely to stay in crowded, doubled-up living situations, or in apartments with the utilities cut off,'' says Ms. Dilts.
Private, city, state, and federal funding has helped increase the amount of transitional and permanent housing in Seattle. For example, one program will allow families to be in ``transitional'' housing for six months, during which they receive case management assistance in finding job training, day care, and counseling. After six months, families are considered permanent residents in the apartments, and the case management services in most cases will cease.
``We need to help people in distress, but unless we deal with long-term issues, it's not enough,'' says Dilts.
Winter in New York for families in welfare hotels means searching for warm clothing for children and living with sometimes unreliable services, such as heat and hot water, says Tom Styron of the Association to Benefit Children.
``But it is nothing like what the folks on the street have to go through,'' he says.
These shelter providers agree that there has been some progress in aiding the homeless. They specifically cite Congress's passage of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act last year, which provides a range of financial assistance for local efforts such as emergency food and shelter, transitional housing, health care, mental health services, and other services to homeless people.
But the problems are still severe. There continue to be more homeless in urban, suburban, and rural areas, according to most shelter providers.
The assistance brought by the McKinney Act (named for the late congressman from Connecticut) is seen as helpful, but not nearly enough. It was authorized at $443 million and $616 million, respectively, in fiscal years 1987 and 1988. But actual funding was $355 million and $358 million.
``It's a small, continuing band-aid,'' says Mary Ellen Hombs of the National Coalition for the Homeless.