When cold winds blow Americans give shelter

The Arctic cold spell that has gripped much of the United States has found many people taking extra care to help homeless people find food and shelter. That effort is needed year round.

Michael Ciaglo/Houston Chronicle via AP
A homeless man wraps himself in blankets donated by the charity Love in Action in Houston Jan. 2, as temperatures dipped into the 30s. Snow flurries fell as far south as Austin and Abilene, Texas.

Melinda Bowyer gives free rides to homeless people to get them to the warmth of a shelter.

For some time Ms. Bowyer, known locally as the “Uber Queen” of Doylestown, Pa., has been giving her tips to homeless people she encounters. 

But during this winter’s lingering, bitter cold spell in much of the United States she now has turned off her Uber app and lets the homeless ride free of charge. Helping them “is the best feeling in the whole, entire world,” she told reporters from the NBC TV affiliate in Philadelphia. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of homeless people there are.”

In cities across the country individuals, churches, and charities are stepping in to help sometimes overwhelmed local governments provide a warm place for homeless people to stay as night after night of unseasonably frigid temperatures wears on. 

Many shelters are asking for extra support as they work to meet an increased need, from donations of food, hats, scarves, and gloves to personal hygiene items. Some are looking for extra volunteers to handle the influx of shelter seekers. 

“It’s something I don’t understand. We’re the richest country in the world, and yet we have to face situations such as these,” the Rev. Alfred Harrison at the Fellowship in Christ Christian Center in Charlotte, N.C., told the local ABC TV affiliate. Nighttime temperatures in his area have been dropping to well below freezing.

As Americans step up to meet this emergency through their actions and prayers they are being made more aware of the world of the homeless, a world too often seen through a distorted lens of oversimplification or stereotypes. 

One’s image of a homeless person, for example, may be that of an older man who’s facing mental or substance abuse challenges.

But a new study from the University of Chicago, for example, paints a different picture. It shows that 1 in 10 young adults (18- to 25-year-olds) in the US has experienced homelessness, as has 1 in 30 adolescents. Nearly 660,000 adolescents and 3.5 million young adults have been homeless within the past year alone, the study found.

Many of the young adults are well educated, some with college degrees. And they come from both rural and urban areas. 

As might be expected some youths and young adults are fleeing unstable or difficult home situations. But others are having a hard time just finding work and a place to live in a time of rising housing costs. 

The findings “are staggering. They are alarming, but they’re not necessarily surprising,” notes one of the researchers. “Homelessness is young. It’s more common than people expect, and it’s largely hidden.”

Those trying to alleviate long-term homelessness acknowledge it is a multifaceted challenge. Which programs are most effective at getting people off the streets and into stable housing? What are the underlying causes and how can they be addressed? Workers at shelters need to assess each case individually. Could a program that is effective somewhere else work at their shelter? How can government and private efforts blend more closely to be even more helpful?

The same deep-seated instincts that are causing Americans to help one another during this cold spell can also be applied to defeat the pernicious and tenacious challenge of homelessness year round.

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