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Caught in the Cold: Homelessness and the Polar Vortex

As a deadly polar vortex moved across the United States this week, cities scrambled to shelter the homeless, and hacker collective Anonymous is working to provide additional aid.

Chicago amid the polar vortex.

Tuesday’s record-breaking cold covered much of the United States in a layer of ice after a polar vortex brought in a low-pressure circulation of displaced Arctic winds. States are reporting at least 21 deaths, and all 50 states experienced freezing temperatures at some point Tuesday.

Since Sunday, authorities have reported seven weather-related deaths in Illinois and six in Indiana. Several victims have been identified as homeless people who refused shelter or didn’t make it to a warm haven, such as an exhaust vent, soon enough. Those who have died amid Chicago’s hyperboreal nights, dubbed “Chiberia,” suffered in temperatures as low as minus 15.

As the lethal Arctic air crept over Chicago, the Department of Family Support Services (DFSS), which coordinates homeless services, scrambled to provide shelter for the city’s homeless population, which totals 6,276, according to a “point in time” count that is conducted by DFSS and homeless service organizations citywide every two years. The most recent count was in January 2013, and DFSS will conduct the count again for the first time in consecutive years this month, according to spokesman Matt Smith.

But Chicago Coalition for the Homeless points to much larger numbers. An analysis in July 2013 by the organization showed 116,042 Chicagoans were homeless during the 2012-13 school year. The disparity in the two figures is partly the result of rising enrollment of homeless students in Chicago Public Schools, 90 percent of whom live doubled-up in the homes of others.

Chicago’s shelter system, which includes interim housing and emergency shelter, can support approximately 3,000 people per night in extreme weather. On Monday evening, the city’s shelter occupancy was approximately 95 percent, Smith told Truthout.

Moreover, the city’s shelters did retain record numbers. The Pacific Garden Mission, Chicago’s largest homeless shelter, housed 1,081 people Tuesday night during the deep freeze, according Phil Kwiatkowski, president of the mission. He told Truthout that although there weren’t enough beds for everyone, the staff put out mats in all the available spaces inside the facility for people to sleep on.

“One of the populations that have grown the most is women and children. And I don’t care how long you’ve done this and with as many heartbreaking stories, but I think the hardest is to see children when they’re homeless, especially when the conditions are such as they are,” he said.

The Shelter System Lottery

Jennifer Hutchinson, who is 20 years old and pregnant, is among the growing population of women without housing of her own this winter. She found a place of refuge from the biting cold the past few nights at one of the Night Ministry’s temporary youth housing programs in Chicago.

“It was kind of scary at first because I have never really been in this type of predicament. But [the Night Ministry shelter] was helpful because, sometimes when family is not always there, you need something else to fall on,” she told Truthout in a telephone interview from the shelter.

She plans to find a place of her own. But if that is not possible, she may have to leave the state, because staying with family is not an option, as she found out after she returned to Chicago a couple of years ago after spending some time in Virginia with an aunt. Before that, she was in the care of Chicago’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Finding employment has been difficult for her because of her pregnancy, but she is receiving unemployment benefits and saving most of that to find affordable housing after she leaves the shelter.

She has recently re-enrolled in school and will be attending classes again Monday. She says she has only a few credits left and is looking forward to getting her high school diploma.

But she described her experience in the DCFS system, before she came to the Night Ministry’s youth housing program, as difficult. “It was really hard being away from my brothers, really just being away from my brothers and sisters and trying to keep it together and live day by day in different households in different cities. I guess you learn a lot of things about different cities and go to a lot of places, but it was just hard dealing with other people’s households and problems when you’ve got problems of your own,” she said.

Family separation in the shelter system is common. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, about 55 percent of the cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors report that families may have to break up to be sheltered, most often restricting access to fathers and older boys. It’s a bitter choice for many families on cold nights like the ones this week.

Another tough choice for homeless people, and one that has resulted in some choosing temperatures below zero rather than shelter, arises from policies restricting pets at shelters. Because many homeless people rely on their dogs or cats for their psychological health and physical safety, many don’t see the benefit of separating from their pets for housing in shelters that don’t allow pets.

But Hutchinson is grateful for her temporary housing at the Night Ministry and her unemployment benefits, which may give her an opportunity at longer-term housing of her own. Her story highlights federal social services programs that are vital to those struggling with poverty and homelessness across the U.S., but are continuously being cut by a congressional infighting over the federal budget.

Cold Cutbacks

If the Senate can’t agree upon a way to pay for a three-month extension of long-term unemployment benefits, which advanced Tuesday after a successful vote to break a GOP-led filibuster, then hundreds more could join the ranks of those who have lost their housing. Congress is now working to strike a deal that would offset the legislation’s $6.5 billion cost with additional cuts elsewhere, an effort that may prove difficult in the Senate.

Federal unemployment assistance for 1.3 million people who have been unemployed longer than 26 weeks expired in December, after Republicans blocked efforts to extend them. If Congress can’t work out a budget accord to extend the benefits, 3.6 million more people will lose them during this year, which could push hundreds, maybe more, into homelessness.

Additionally, services that have assisted young people like Hutchinson who are struggling with poverty also are being cut, such as DCFS. The agency experienced deep cuts totaling $86 million last year.

But perhaps the most crucial cuts that have had the deepest impact on homelessness have come to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) over the decades. Although HUD’s 2014 budget provides $47.6 billion, an increase of $4.2 billion, or 9.7 percent, above the 2012 enacted level, over the longer term, the agency has experienced cuts since the 1970s. Cuts to HUD programs from sequestration in 2013 cause increased hardship among a growing number of people who can’t afford rent, with many becoming homeless.

Other crucial programs that assist low-income families and individuals during extreme weather events such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program have been cut over the years. Assistance Program funding has fallen 17 percent in the past three years, leaving 1.5 million households stuck with energy bills they can’t afford, according to the Chicago Reporter.

Further, negotiations are almost complete this week on a new farm bill that is expected to cut $9 billion of funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps. In more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia, the level of financial assistance given to food stamp beneficiaries is tied to their eligibility for the Assistance Program. Those states often provide minimal Assistance Program payments to low-income residents to make them eligible for higher food stamp benefits during winter to keep them from having to choose between paying their heating bill or buying groceries.

But with budget cuts coming to both programs, the congressional woes over this so-called “heat and eat” loophole may force many deeper into poverty, and perhaps onto the streets.

Another Kind of Winter Blast

But where some shelters and the state may fail, mutual aid networks birthed from the Occupy movement and the Anonymous hacker collective are organizing to provide additional assistance to those in need during the winter. With the onset of the polar vortex, Operation Safe Winter has gone into overdrive in major urban areas like New York.

The project was started in the United Kingdom by a small group of young Anons, as many online organizers who identify with the hacker collective are called. They started organizing clothing drives in conjunction with traditional charity drives for the homeless. The campaign quickly spread to at least 12 countries, from Syria to Argentina, according to anonymous online organizers Truthout spoke to in a chat forum about the project.

“After November 5, we wanted to progress with the great work done that day; it tied in as winter was heading with severity [and] more people [were] on the streets than ever before in a winter billed as the worst for decades. We wanted to get the online community motivated to do something, not just Anonymous, but everyone. We have had 11-year-olds here asking how to donate clothes,” said an anonymous online organizer, who went by the username “t0p.”

But the operation is not exclusive to Anonymous or Occupy. Many decentralized, grassroots activist groups in major urban areas have been using the hashtag #OpSafeWinter and other networks to collect relevant information about warming centers, shelters, food and supplies and blasting it out through online social media to those in need.

“The New York population of Anonymous and [Occupy] Sandy coordinators were kind of involved with mutual aid networks. And so when Operation Safe Winter started, we just applied our lessons and started skill-sharing with the kids in the U.K. And that’s what you’re seeing now,” said Justin Stone-Diaz, who is a coordinator with Operation Safe Winter in New York.

In New York, organizers are doing direct case work with 26 individuals who range in age from 17 to 72, Stone-Diaz said. “We sort of have conversations with these people and get them to express their needs, and … we amplify their expressed needs on social media,” he said. “I can turn tweets into socks.”

“We’ve seen that the traditional tactics don’t work, throwing down blankets and trying to get people into shelters. That doesn’t help long term. But we find if you work in relationship with these individuals, you can sort of help them find their way,” he said.

While shelters were necessary in the Midwest this week to keep thousands of people alive, with temperatures beginning to rise across much of the United States and many emergency shelters in urban areas experiencing crowding, occupants are beginning to return to the street. The question now, for many, is: What next?

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