One of the most concerning realities for homeless individuals living outdoors or who have unstable living conditions is hypothermia. Hypothermia can set in even at moderately warm temperatures in certain conditions. But living outdoors means homeless individuals often face far worse than moderate cold.
Jeremy Nicholls, program manager for the single men’s and family shelters at Cornerstone Community Outreach, said hypothermia is a major threat for community members in unstable living situations. CCO is based in Chicago, which in 2017 reached record-breaking cold stretches below 20 degrees Farenheit for days. At least two days wind chills were between -25 degrees and -40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Nicholls shared several experiences working with homeless individuals affected by frostbite and hypothermia with Invisible People. One man Nicholls has known for years through CCO recently asked him for a dollar when they met on the street. As Nicholls gave it to him, he noticed the man no longer had fingers on his right hand. When he asked the man what happened, he replied simply, “frostbite.”
Nicholls also spoke of a CCO community member who had puffy fingers as long as Nicholls knew him. Nicholls said the shelter once called an ambulance for the man after worrying he was succumbing to hypothermia. Since then, he has been in a nursing home and his fingers have returned to normal size.
“He’s housed and looking great,” Nicholls said.
In the summer, CCO acts as a cooling center for unhoused people. For the long, Midwestern winters, the facility adapts to become a warming center.
Shelter workers continue outreach, picking people up and transporting them to shelter, giving out supplies and coats, and even train cards so more people have access to transportation.
Nicholls said COVID will greatly impact the shelter’s ability to help people this winter. Social distancing is difficult in tight spaces, like a cafeteria, and many seeking shelter at CCO are older and immunocompromised.
“With COVID and the need for social distancing, I don’t know how we’re going to be able to tackle this,” Nicholls said. “We’ll have the supplies to help and prevent, but space will be/is an issue.”
However, Nicholls said community members can intervene in hypothermia cases and support shelters and homeless individuals. Winter donations of socks, hand-warmers, feet warmers, gloves, coats, boots, either to shelters or directly to homeless individuals, can help, as can buying people coffee and a warm meal. Nicholls also said if you see someone showing signs of hypothermia, like shaking uncontrollably, and have no way to warm them up, the best solution is to call 911 immediately.
Signs of hypothermia include:
- Fumbling hands
- Memory loss
- Slurred speech
- In babies, low energy and bright red skin can also be symptoms.
The most vulnerable populations include homeless people, elderly people and babies.
How to Help in Cases of Suspected Hypothermia
To help a person with hypothermia, the first step is getting the person to a warmer room or location. Remove any wet items of clothing they may be wearing. Warming should focus on the center of the person’s body, which could include extra jackets or heated blankets. Warm drinks can also help (alcohol-free) and drinks should never be given to an unconscious person. If a person isn’t conscious or doesn’t seem to respond to warming, call emergency responders immediately.
In severe cases like those Nicholls described, frostbite can set in. Frostbite usually results in loss of feeling and color in the extremities, like fingers and toes. If left long enough, individuals can lose fingers, toes, or even limbs. Numbness and waxy skin are signs of frostbite and require immediate medical attention.
Hypothermia and frostbite are serious, and they’re also widespread.
According to the National Center for Biomedical Information (NCBI), 25% of all hypothermic injuries and 20% of hypothermic deaths were attributed to individuals experiencing homelessness. The NCBI also states that a New York study reported a similar proportion of deaths and hospital admissions among individuals who were homeless. Mirroring Nicholl’s experience with vulnerable homeless adults, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council reports that the average death of a homeless person is around 50 years old.
As winter gets closer, hypothermia will only add to the long list of problems unhoused individuals face. Invisible People previously covered the ways COVID anxiety and seasonal depression negatively impacts people with unstable living conditions. Left untreated, hypothermia and frostbite have serious consequences, and can even cost a homeless individual their life.