What its like to be homeless in the winter?
5 ways to help a homeless neighbor in NYC’s extreme cold this winter
During this time of the year at The Bowery Mission, we typically see an increase in guests seeking critical care: safe shelter, hot meals, warm clothing and even basic medical care. Winter weather in New York City can be ruthless, especially for neighbors struggling with homelessness. So many of us want to connect with our neighbors on the streets or subways but feel lost and unsure about what to do.
Being outdoors when temperatures drop below freezing can have devastating impacts. For people experiencing homelessness, it can be dangerous and even deadly — city data shows 16 homeless New Yorkers died last year due to cold exposure. 1 Hypothermia (abnormally low body temperature) is a genuine concern for anyone on the street in freezing temperatures.
Sadly, thousands of New Yorkers continue to live on the streets or in the subways each winter. The city found 3,439 individuals continued to live unsheltered in January 2022 — during one of the coldest times of the year. 2
The good news is, you CAN help today! Here are five immediate ways you can help someone in the cold winter weather.
#1. Recognize the warning signs.
Learn to spot the warning signs of hypothermia, which include drowsiness, confusion, shivering, and slurred speech. Keep in mind that older adults and people under the influence of drugs or alcohol are most at risk.
If you feel that someone is in immediate danger — for example, if they are unconscious, unresponsive, or in acute distress — call 911 immediately. You may save a life.
#2. Talk to them.
If you feel comfortable approaching the person, say hello and start a conversation. Ask them if they are OK and if they have some place to go. If you’re up for it, ask if there is anything they’d like you to do.
Remember: Many people experiencing homelessness feel like they have very little say over their own lives. Asking open-ended questions will show you respect them and their ability to make their own decisions.
#3. Connect them to shelter or a warming center.
If the person needs support getting inside, refer them to a nearby intake or drop-in center. The Department of Homeless Services provides a pocket guide of all DHS intake centers and drop-in centers.
Location and proximity can be important. If you don’t know of a shelter or warming center nearby, call 311 and ask for “homeless outreach” to let the City know there is a person in need of emergency shelter. A skilled outreach team will be dispatched to check in on the person and help them find the nearest shelter.
You can also direct the person to The Bowery Mission for safe emergency shelter and other care. Learn more about how to get help at the Mission and access printable resource cards to give to anyone in need.
Top Tip: If the person turns you down, but you are still concerned for their safety or well-being in winter weather, you can still call 311 to have an outreach team check on them. Even if the person declines shelter, an outreach team can provide them with warm blankets or clothing.
What is CODE BLUE?
When temperatures drop below 32 degrees in New York City, the city issues a “Code Blue” alert. During Code Blue, no individual who is homeless and seeking shelter can be denied. Drop-in centers are open 24 hours a day to shelter as many people as possible, and anyone who is chronically homeless can get transportation to housing. At The Bowery Mission during this time, our chapels remain open to keep as many guests as possible warm and nourished with hot meals and beverages.
#4. Offer to buy a hot drink or meal.
If the person welcomes additional support, consider offering to buy them hot food or drink. Just be sure to speak to them first about what they want or need. Asking the person directly shows you care and creates an opportunity for them to share about any dietary limitations or preferences.
On extra-cold days, you can also consider carrying extra winter essentials like hand warmers or warm socks in your backpack or purse to offer someone you meet. Even a small gesture of kindness can bring warmth and comfort to someone living unsheltered.
#5. Donate winter items.
Every year, hundreds of New Yorkers rely on The Bowery Mission for help with critical winter items like coats, hats, scarves, boots, and blankets. We’ve developed trust with our community, who knows us as a safe place to go for clothing and other supplies.
When you donate winter coats or other winter items to The Bowery Mission, you will ensure someone, somewhere, in our city can stay warm and dry this season. Visit our Donate Goods page today for a list of most-needed items. You can also make a financial gift to support our programs during the winter season.
Spread the Word
When winter rears its head, it’s hard not to think about how difficult it is for people living unsheltered. But we all have the power to make a difference in the lives of our neighbors. Act today by sharing these tips and reposting information from @bowerymission.
Thank you for caring about helping our neighbors experiencing homelessness!
“I came to America from Nigeria, so the winter weather was entirely different from what I was used to. Coupled with my age, it would have been very difficult to survive without The Bowery Mission coming to my help.” — Sunday, former client of The Bowery Mission
What It’s Like Living on the Street? A Day in the Life of an Unsheltered Person
For most of us, homelessness is unimaginable. We take for granted that we’ll be able to meet our daily needs of safety, food, shelter, and companionship without facing incredible obstacles. But every day, thousands of people awake in every region of the world and build their lives despite the challenges of living without shelter or a regular address.
There is no “average” life of a person experiencing homelessness. Life on the street is as varied and complex as life anywhere, and an individual’s experience of homelessness can be a product of their age, health, relationship and employment status, and many other factors. But below, we have pieced together many testimonials by individuals who have been or remain unsheltered in order to draw a reasonable picture of how many people experiencing homelessness survive day-to-day.
For most individuals on the street, the day begins early. Particularly in cold weather, many unsheltered people report waking early to take advantage of opportunities for warmth or hygiene before the rest of their city stirs to life. One man reports getting started “around 5.30 am so I could wait by a set of newly built public toilets near where I was sleeping.” With some help from a sympathetic janitor he got himself cleaned up in private.
Homelessness doesn’t always equal joblessness: for an estimated 25 percent of unsheltered people, the typical day includes a shift at work. Still more spend time seeking employment, either by stopping by businesses in person or by searching for opportunities online.
Anyone in the latter group—or anyone seeking a warm place to rest, read, or use the bathroom—is well-served by public libraries, which have become an essential resource in unsheltered people’s lives. Some libraries, like the main San Francisco branch, even employ social workers.
An estimated 1.3 million public school students experience homelessness and housing insecurity, so a full academic course load is a part of the unsheltered experience for many.
Unsheltered people need routine as much as anyone, so the rest of their day might follow whatever familiar patterns and survival strategies they’ve designed for themselves. When not driving for Lyft, one grandmother experiencing homelessness in Baltimore reports that she finds rest where she can: “Sleep can come on a park bench, in a hotel or in front of a 7-Eleven.”
Shelters and missions can also provide services and meals, even for people who aren’t able to spend the night due to lack of space. Sometimes these programs offer health care and dental services, which can be very difficult for unsheltered individuals to access otherwise. Other people who experience homelessness say that traveling, often by public transportation, can provide a temporary relief from the elements.
No matter how these individuals spend their day, hygiene remains a challenge. The Right To Shower is happy to work with Lava Mae, whose volunteers bring private mobile shower units to homeless people in a growing number of U.S. cities. In the first year 100% of the profits from The Right To Shower products helps fund this essential mission. Because no matter what their daily schedule, every person deserves dignity.
Helping the Homeless in the Winter: What You Can Do
For most of us, winter means holidays, family gatherings, and gift-giving.
But for people experiencing homelessness, winter is a brutal challenge. The cold weather makes life on the street even more dangerous than usual, and the societal focus on togetherness and holiday cheer can create a sense of even greater isolation.
If you would like to know how to help the homeless during winter, here are some ideas for making the greatest impact.
Donate warm clothes, socks, and blankets.Cleaning house for the cold season? Taking stock of your family’s winter wardrobe? Don’t let those coats and hats go to the trash. Shelters and individuals will be grateful for your gently used items, especially socks and blankets, which are even more necessary during the cold months.
Lead a holiday gift drive. Enlist your friends, coworkers, classmates, or social media connections in a campaign to raise money or donate items (from kids’ toys to personal hygiene products) to a local shelter. If you can, ask the shelter what items are most needed and prepare care packages that they can distribute to the people they serve.
Shop philanthropic businesses. By listing a homeless-serving organization on the Amazon Smile program, you can ensure that a portion of your purchases is donated to them. Ask your employer if they’d be willing to provide a matching donation to an organization that serves people experiencing homelessness or include local shelters in the Combined Federal Campaign if you work for the U.S. government.
Donate food, including leftovers. All shelters and soup kitchens will be grateful for donations during the holiday months, and if you over-prepare for an office party or gathering among friends, don’t let those leftovers go to waste. Rescuing Leftover Cuisine is one organization that helps redirect potential food waste to those who need it.
Call 311 when you see someone in danger. The colder it gets, the more dangerous it is for people to live unsheltered. If you see a person outside on a cold night, contact 311 to access local services and potentially save a life. Many cities have their own cold-weather homeless-serving hotlines and 211 is another common line for essential community services. If you meet an unsheltered person who is also a veteran, they can find help through 1-877-4AID-VET, while homeless teens can call the National Runaway Safeline at 1-800-RUNAWAY.
Buying The Right To Shower products is another way to help a homeless person during the winter. In the first year 100% of profits will go to mobile shower NGOs like Lava Mae, a leading nonprofit that has brought private, mobile shower units to homeless populations in many major cities. A shower can help someone get warm, stay healthy, and feel like themselves again. Especially as the temperatures drop, a warm shower can be the difference between life and death.