Updated: Mar 10
While many of us view the holidays with festive joy, the cold climate and societal traditions make this time of year especially challenging for those experiencing homelessness. Image courtesy Shutterstock.
This article was written by Emma MacKenzie (Programs Team Member) and Helen He (Programs Team Member and Editor of the Breaktime Blog).
“I can’t wait for Christmas to be over.”
This was the sentiment expressed by 18-year-old Kabrien Johnson — who goes by KJ — when asked how she felt about the holiday season. KJ was a member of Breaktime’s program this fall, and has experienced homelessness for over two years. While many of us view the holidays as a time filled with family, festivities, and a much-needed break from work, for people like KJ, it isn’t all joy and cheer. Experiencing homelessness is never easy, but the challenges are only amplified during the holiday season — especially this year, in the middle of a pandemic.
Winter is one of the deadliest times of the year for people experiencing homelessness, since exposure to the cold can cause life-threatening illnesses like frostbite and hypothermia. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, many emergency winter shelters don’t open until the weather outside is as low as 20 or even 13 degrees Fahrenheit, but hypothermia can set in much sooner than that: at 32 to 50 degrees. This means that people experiencing homelessness are often forced to stay outside on the streets, even at very dangerous temperatures.
Many winter shelters don’t open until temperatures reach levels far colder than life-threatening, leaving people experiencing homelessness outside in dangerous conditions. Image courtesy National Health Care for the Homeless Council.
Every year, at least 700 people in the United States are killed from hypothermia because they lack access to suitable housing or shelter. These individuals, and more, are recognized on National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, which was on December 21st this year. Fitting to the elevated risks posed by the colder climate of this season, this remembrance day occurs annually on the winter solstice — the longest night of the year.
Even when shelters are open during the winter, they fill up quickly, which means fewer resources — such as food or warm clothing — can be distributed to each individual. Additionally, the factor of COVID-19 has placed even more burdens upon the housing system, as shelters de-densify to follow social distancing measures. Temporary cold-weather shelters have faced many shortages of volunteers, masks, and the sanitation equipment necessary to keep them running safely and effectively.
This time of year is also challenging on the mental health of those experiencing homelessness. Depression and loneliness are quite common, especially since many individuals don’t have homes they can go back to, or families they want to celebrate with. Combined with the presence of COVID-19, these feelings of isolation from the rest of society are only exacerbated during the holidays.
As KJ puts it, from her own experience: “You’re literally walking out on the street every day, and you’re looking through people’s windows and see them eating good and [splurging] out and getting all this expensive stuff that they most likely don’t need. And you’re outside, and then it snows…ugh.”
Besides the physical and mental health risks, another difficult aspect of the holiday season for people experiencing homelessness is the fact that workplaces mostly shut down for the last two weeks of December. This means that individuals need to wait much longer when it comes to important services, such as getting their IDs, filing housing applications, or hearing back from a job interview. These delays can have major consequences for people without stable housing — like KJ.
Depression and loneliness are quite common, especially since many individuals don’t have homes they can go back to, or families they want to celebrate with.
KJ spent the weeks leading up to the holidays doing many of these things; she interviewed for a number of job positions and contacted various sources for housing. During other times of year, she typically expected to hear back from these opportunities within a few days. But because many of those running these services are off for the holidays, KJ now has to wait for multiple weeks instead — meaning she will be jobless and without stable housing for much longer than usual.
“Having patience [is a major challenge during this time], especially if you have plans on continuing not to be homeless. Being patient for these calls to come back, being patient for these apartments to come back, being patient to figure out if anyone is available to let you stay somewhere for the night or something, because I know some people work on the holidays, some people don’t, so finding people that are available to help you — just being patient on that,” KJ said.
Because resources can be limited, KJ often feels a sense of “desperation” when she tries to get by during the winter. These feelings are amplified by her frustration with other aspects of the holiday season, particularly the commercialized and wasteful nature of certain traditions. To KJ, a holiday culture that prioritizes cutting down millions of trees and buying expensive gifts seems to be more about upholding arbitrary standards than anything else.
“Everybody will probably be so caught up on what this holiday is supposed to be and not what actually it is. One reason I couldn’t mess with my family anymore was because I couldn’t sit at a table and act like everything is fine and that we’re a happy big family, when literally just last week I was asking for money and y’all were nowhere to be found. But I’m invited to this Christmas party, though, because it’s the holidays, and we’re supposed to care about people and we’re supposed to do all these things,” KJ said.
Instead, for KJ, the holidays are more about having a moment to reflect on where she is currently and what goals she might have for the following year. It’s also a time to check in on the relationships she has, evaluating which connections bring positive support into her life and which ones may not be worth maintaining. As she puts it, the holidays are a time to see people’s “true colors” and discern “who cares and who’s faking like they care.”
“There’s probably Toys for Tots and all these donations to help people… But where are those movements and all this stuff going to be in January and March and February and June and July? There’s no food for kids all year round.”
And despite all the obstacles she experiences during this time of year, KJ still makes sure to look out for her peers. She hopes that others do the same, and also emphasized that homelessness is a constant struggle that impacts people outside of just Christmas as well.
“There’s probably Toys for Tots and all these donations to help people… But where are those movements and all this stuff going to be in January and March and February and June and July? There’s no food for kids all year round,” KJ said.
KJ wants people to know that helping those who experience homelessness should not just be a priority during December; we need to provide the resources and structural support systems to support this community in the long-term.
If you’re wondering how to help those experiencing homelessness this holiday season, there are many ways to get involved. Consider donating warm clothes or blankets to your local homeless shelter or other organization; gloves, thick socks, sweaters, boots, sleeping bags, and winter hats and coats are typically most appreciated.
More importantly, though, extend your support beyond this month as well. Consider making recurring donations of items specific to COVID-19, such as face masks, hand sanitizer, or cleaning supplies. Foodstuffs can be donated to your local soup kitchen or food pantry. If you are able, volunteering at a shelter or pantry can be a great way to meet members of your community and help keep these places open during the pandemic. You can also work from home to mobilize your lawmakers and political officials; encourage them to make structural changes that will help individuals experiencing homelessness gain greater access to housing and employment opportunities. And finally, always show kindness to those on the streets—not just during the wintertime, but year-round. Extra cash, a warm meal, or a smile and a short conversation can go a long way in affirming the humanity of our peers on the streets.