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Surviving the Holidays

Photo by Andrew Spencer on Unsplash

When many people think about the holiday season, they picture themselves surrounded by friends and family, sitting around a table full of food, exchanging gifts, and cozying up on the couch to watch a cheesy holiday movie. For people experiencing homelessness, however, the encroaching holiday season means gearing up for survival - both mentally and physically.

Mental health professionals working with people experiencing homelessness say that these individuals experience increased levels of depression and anxiety, whether that be anxiety from spending time with family or anxiety from feeling isolated and alone.

Mikayla, one of our program alumna who is now employed as a full-time Breaktime staff, says that many people’s experiences differ. Some peers she knew who were also experiencing homelessness were fortunate to have a family with whom they could spend time with during the holidays, but others did not share that opportunity.

“When I was homeless, I didn’t care for the holidays. I spent my Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years working last year”.

Mikayla reflects on her holiday experiences last year

While many of us are getting time off of work for the holidays, it is important to be thinking about how we can spend this time to help members of our community that are simply trying to survive the holidays. Find a local drive and donate hats, blankets, coats, toys, food, etc. Volunteer your time to a local shelter or food pantry. Encourage local and national governments to develop and fund a winter response plan for the homeless and to invest in housing reform and housing programs year round.

“I am looking forward to Christmas shopping and buying my first Christmas tree. Even though I live alone I still want to cook a big meal and decorate my apartment”

With the help of RAFT, a fund that can provide eligible households with assistance that can be used to help keep their housing, obtain new housing, or otherwise avoid experiencing homelessness, Mikayla was able to secure her own apartment this year, and is now excited for the upcoming holidays. Mikayla’s advice to those who are currently experiencing homelessness right now is this:

“The holidays are a tough time for many people. Throughout my time of being homeless I have learned many things. I want people to know that tough times don’t last forever.”

People experiencing homelessness deal with the mental hardships that accompany the holiday season while simultaneously seeking to survive harsh living conditions. Based on last year’s Annual Homelessness Assessment from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly 600,000 people experienced homelessness on any given night in January of 2020. For the first time since the HUD started doing annual counts, an increase in unsheltered populations was recorded. Nearly 40% of people experiencing homelessness were found to be unsheltered in places such as the streets, abandoned buildings, or other locations unsuitable for human habitation.

Officials suspect that this increase in both the general homeless population as well as those who are unsheltered has to do with the COVID-19 pandemic - a pandemic our society still struggles with to this day. Some people experiencing homelessness fear being exposed to COVID in shelters. Moreover, many shelters are short staffed and limited in capacity due to COVID guidelines.

Even those who stay in shelters overnight deal with cold December temperatures. Most shelters’ limit daytime hours, leaving people to face harsh winter conditions. People experiencing homelessness are much more susceptible to developing exposure-related conditions such as hypothermia or frost-bite. These conditions can be immediately life-threatening and can lead to long term health conditions.

If you are experiencing any form of homelessness or housing insecurity this year and are in the greater Boston area, you can find resources listed below:

Cold Weather Resources:

Precautions to reduce risk of hypothermia

Winter emergency shelters and day programs

Where to receive winter gear

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