How to Help the Homeless During the Polar Vortex

A Polar Vortex is descending upon the midwest, making parts of it literally colder than Mars. This is a potentially life-threatening weather pattern that holds particular danger for people without housing. Here’s how you can help.

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City officials are recognizing the upcoming dangers for the homeless by preparing with extra facilities, outreach, and warming stations. Temperatures are expected to be at their lowest on Wednesday; however, the fear is that when the temperatures begin to rise again, this level of care will dissipate, too. Douglas Schenkelberg, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, told the New York Times that it’s important to remember that the cold presents a continuous threat to the health and safety of the homeless:

“We’ll have this really bad weather through Thursday and then it will warm up some, and the scaled-up capacity will disappear, and you’ll see people back on the streets, and those people need housing,” he said. “That sense of urgency completely disappears when the crisis goes away.”

So, donations to the homeless shelters that work year-round to help people are really important, as is keeping an eye out for people in need. Here’s how you can contribute.

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Call 311 for info

If you see someone out in dangerous weather, you can contact 311 to find out where the nearest shelters or local warming centers are to get them to. HuffPost reports that the Chicago’s Coalition for the Homeless says if you see someone sleeping outdoors, it could be considered a situation for emergency services and 911.

Donate money

These shelters are able to keep open year round because of donations; much like how the urgency will fade as temperatures rise, donations will likely become sparser. If you can afford it, set up a small (or large!) recurring donation to support homeless shelters in your area. Consistent money makes a big difference to small non-profits.

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Donate the right clothes

Donating money is almost always the best option, but because the cold is so imminent, shelters are asking directly for what they need; in fact, it might be helpful to drop off items that can be immediately distributed. That means outer wear, gloves, warm socks, and long underwear. For anyone with a Costco membership, one Lifehacker staffer recommended this sock brand for cost and quality!

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You can also check to see if local organizations have Amazon wishlists or things they need posted on their website, like this one for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. St. Stephen’s. You can also call a local shelter and get real time information on what’s needed, as things may change quickly. They may also need volunteers to help, if you want to bundle up and go outside.

Have an emergency kit

You can donate toe and hand warmers to homeless shelters, but keeping some on hand to hand out is helpful. Other items that might come in handy are camping emergency blankets, bottled water, hats, and gloves. Giving someone money on the street might mean they can buy themselves a cup of coffee or tea and get out of the cold for a little while; many of the people who spoke with the NYT explained they were raising money for hotel rooms or cleaner shelter spaces with a minimal fee.

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Know it’s an emergency every day

John Tribbett, the street outreach manager at Minneapolis’ St. Stephen’s, told HuffPost that he hopes people will donate and reach out to help realize this isn’t an issue that goes away with the cold. Homelessness increased for the second year in a row in 2018, and the lack of affordable living in the U.S. is a systemic problem.

“The real story is the tragedy we have in this country that leads to so many people being homeless on the street in the first place,” says Tribbett. So what should you do? Contact your representatives, get involved in organizing efforts in your city or town, and agitate for policies that will improve things like affordable housing availability and the minimum wage.

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