Sunday, February 14, 2010
Cold Weather Policy and Our Homeless Neighbors
Driving around downtown in the cold weather in the days preceding the Big Snow in Dallas, I began pondering our city’s Cold Weather Policy for our neighbors who are living on the street. I had recently learned during the monthly Homeless Advocacy Meeting at The Stewpot that a January, 2010 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless points to 40 degrees F as the temperature recommended for activation of Cold Weather Policy nationwide.
The City of Dallas currently has a policy of 32 degrees — freezing — for such activation: putting shelters on overflow and opening enough emergency shelters to give everyone a bed.
I was happy to learn this week from Dennis Strickland, Lead Case Worker at The Bridge, that staff there has implemented a policy closer to the NCH recommendation: 37 degrees, or a wind chill of 37 degrees. They also now allow ‘self-referral’ of guests after 10 PM during cold weather. There was at least one night during the Big Snow that the gates of The Bridge were not closed for re-entry at 10 P.M., which means there was an open campus. Homeless guests are allowed to sit up in the Welcome Center all night, and, if necessary after referrals and pick up from other shelters, the dining room can be opened for sleeping after getting in extra staff.
These are important and significant improvements over last winter and show an ongoing commitment to accommodate our friends on the street and keep them safe from injury and hypothermia. The Bridge staff seem to be coping as best they can within the limits of their space availability.
I would love the see the city as a whole move toward adopting all of the recommendations in the NCH report. The entire report is worth a read. Here are some highlights that struck me as particularly pertinent. It is of particular concern that, although ours is far from the most harsh climate in the United States, it is in fact the most dangerous for people living outdoors.
the most dangerous cases of hypothermia do not occur when the ambient temperature is far below freezing. Instead, Dr. O’Connell says, the worst cases they see arise when the days are warm (between 40F and 50F) and the nighttime temperature drops to the mid-30’s.
Temperature cut-offs should be avoided, since the effectiveness of a shelter is decreased when the population it serves does not know, from night to night, whether the shelter will be open. If a temperature cut-off is necessary, due to financial or other reasons, the cut-off should be at least 40F in order to prevent the most dangerous cases of hypothermia, according to Dr. O’Connell.
An exemplary winter shelter would be open 24 hours each day between October 1 and April 30, regardless of temperature, as well as any other days during the year when the temperature falls below 40F. It would also admit all homeless people, regardless of sobriety status or past bans, unless they are violent or causing an extreme disturbance.
It is also important to note that a consistent, across-the-board policy throughout a set number of months and all shelters builds trust between the homeless population and the service providers attempting to help them and indeed to keep them alive.