Surviving the Winter Without Shelter

Winter without Shelter

Tragically, It’s Not Always Possible

As the weather starts to turn chilly across parts of the country, you may be cozying up in your home and wondering how people without homes are handling the changing weather.

Unfortunately, many people spending the winter without shelter do not survive the experience. About 700 people who are homeless die from the cold each year in the United States.

Even in Los Angeles, a city known for its warm weather, cold has been a factor in the deaths of at least 13 people over the last three years.

That’s because hypothermia can set in at temperatures as low as 50 degrees, or even higher temperatures than that in wet conditions.

Since most emergency shelters don’t open their doors until it’s 40, 35, 32, or even 13 degrees outside, that leaves a lot of time when homeless people are forced to fend for themselves outside and try to stay warm as best they can.

Here are some of the actual ways people who are living on the streets in cold climates manage to get by:

Matty Sleeps On Steam Drains

Matty is a 34-year-old former traveler now living in Detroit. When he can earn enough from panhandling, he spends a rare warm night in a cheap motel.

With average winter temperatures in the 20s and 30s, Detroit is not a particularly hospitable place to be homeless. Matty has tried to continue traveling, but after he was incarcerated, this resulted in parole violations that repeatedly led to him being caught and brought back to Detroit.

So, for now, Detroit is where he’s living. Or a least surviving.

Rachel Lives in a Frost Covered Tent in Ithaca

Ithaca is a college town in upstate New York that has very cold and snowy winters. Rachel is living there in a tent, trying to stay both sober and warm.

Actually, there is a whole community of homeless people living out of tents in the harsh weather. You can see the tour of that tent encampment here. It’s known as “The Jungle” by locals and was home to about 20 people this past winter.

Rachel says that the people in this community don’t like to go to shelters or motels when they’re available because if they leave the encampment, their things will be stolen. This leaves them sticking it out in all weather conditions to protect what little resources they have.

Fortunately, the city is moving forward on a partnership with Second Wind cottages to build tiny homes on wheels where the tent encampment currently stands. Hopefully, all of these people will be safe and warm indoors this coming winter.

Jason’s Job Keeps Him Out of the Shelter

Jason works a full-time job and his work schedule often prevents him from getting back to Venice Beach in time to get into the emergency winter shelter. Sometimes, he has to choose between taking on an extra shift and earning some more money or sleeping somewhere warm.

It’s a complex calculation for sure. And a bit of a catch-22, since the days he’s earning the most, he has to choose between spending money on a hotel stay or sleeping outside.

Rosco is Homeless in Toronto

A city where winter temperatures regularly drop below -22 degrees Fahrenheit is not an ideal place to be homeless, if there ever was such a thing.

Nevertheless, that’s the reality that Rosco has been facing for the last six years. When asked how he deals with the extreme cold weather, he says, “sometimes, when you’re hungry, you don’t worry about the cold.”


Greg and Latisha Sleep Outside to Stay Together

Greg and Latisha had been together for four years when Mark interviewed them in 2017. They live in Detroit, and sleep outside all year long- even in the harshest of winter conditions. When the temperature dips, they “layer up.”

A big reason for this is the fact that they would need to be separated from each other if they ever did decide to go into a homeless shelter for the night, which is simply not an option for them. Having each other to lean on for support is a bright spot for each of them in the dark storm of homelessness – one that they’re not willing to give up, even when the weather turns deadly.

Joseph Survived a -40 Degree Winter

Like Rosco, Joseph is also living on the streets of Toronto. He has been for 10 years now. Last year he spent the whole winter outside, even when temperatures got down to -40 degrees.

He says that many people who are homeless in Toronto spend their nights in shelters, but he can’t because he feels like he can’t breathe right when he’s in places like that.

Like all of us, Joseph just wants a safe place to live and the support he needs to thrive.

Shelters Aren’t Accessible for Jennifer

Jennifer is homeless in Toronto as well, surviving those same insanely low temperatures outdoors. She spent several years homeless outside in her teens, but this time around it’s much harder because she now uses a wheelchair.

Unfortunately, the majority of shelters and other services in the city are not accessible for her and her wheelchair. At one of the local shelters, she can only get as far as the lobby. Transit offers a whole other set of accessibility challenges.

Most nights, Jennifer says she sleeps in the library because the nights are cold and she doesn’t feel safe being outside around people with her disability.

Someone in Your City Will Be Outside This Winter Too

These are the stories of a handful of people Invisible People has interviewed over the years, but there are many more in towns and cities all over the world sleeping outside this winter, unseen.

Some of those people, unfortunately, won’t make it through to the spring. We need urgent action to end homelessness so that we can stop these needless deaths. Contact your local legislators to let them know you support affordable housing!

Kayla Robbins

Kayla Robbins


Kayla Robbins is a freelance writer who works with big-hearted brands and businesses. When she's not working, she enjoys knitting socks, rolling d20s, and binging episodes of The Great British Bake Off.

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