What It Is Like Experiencing Homelessness in Winter

Winter and homelessness

View Through a Frosted Window

Have you ever felt the chill of winter just before it hit? Maybe you were in your warm house, cozy beneath a soft plaid blanket, your hand cupped around a warm beverage while watching flurries silently touch the ground. Even in your favorite pair of sweatpants and your college hoodie, surrounded by the light of candles and the warmth of close companions, the cold still found you. It crawled up the back of your hooded fleece and touched your spine, sending that oh-so-familiar tingle through your body. You shivered from the top down as if you swallowed a bag of buzzing bees. You braced for the snowstorm as you watched it outside, a view through a frosted window.

In a way, this analogy is the closest thing to describing the sinking feeling of being homeless on the edge of a coming winter, when the cold is so close you can almost feel it touch you. When the winter chill first sets in, and the cafes start shuttering early, the view is already encroaching on your space.

Nervously, you examine the afternoon sky to find the sun’s edges look soft and distant. Out of reach and into darker times, you crawl through the narrow confines until the frosted window barricades you from the rest of the world. The signs of the season are already there, placed inconspicuously on counters, worded with just the right amount of care.

“No parking.”

“No loitering.”

“No asking to use the restroom.”

Once the frigid cold front barges through, the message will be more straightforward, and the signs will say honest things like:

“You’re not welcome here.”

“You’re not good enough.”

“There’s one seat left in the laundromat for the people who have enough quarters.”

Wind chills dip, sending cheerful smiles down while rent goes up. One-bedroom apartment prices increased by 39.9% year-over-year in New York City.

Moratoriums are up, too. That’s nationwide. You look for a job and a roommate and somehow wind up with a cat that follows you in and out of storefronts when your application is rejected. The line requesting your address will be blank as a new snowdrift.

You say, “someday, I will fill it,” as you walk past pedestrians putting up string lights. The hollow place in your heart makes a tiny, broken sound.

As the winter endures, there are fewer and fewer places left to sleep in, sit on, or stand near. “It’s deadly out there,” said Craig Vincent, Executive Director of the Bridge Street Mission outreach program. “People can, in a very short period of time, experience frostbite or hypothermia, and it can lead to death for somebody who realizes it, and it’s way too late.”

Having lost enough, you heed the warning and head into the shelter that is not a home.

The smell of 400 beds clustered around heaping piles of hot garbage hits you all at once. The warming center is overrun by vermin. Rats and roaches scurry over beds and huddle around the lockers in furry clumps.

You close your eyes hard, trying not to imagine what that stain is underneath your dirty mattress, but the thought will haunt you through your sleep. And in the static haze of early morning, you will venture to the shower to wash that nightmare down the drain, only to find that the bathroom is so cold you can see your breath in there. The smooth tile floor feels like a long sheet of ice beneath your toes, and the shower head is falling out of the wall.

“They got us living foul in here,” said Albert Hargrove.

Broken sinks and violence and vermin.

During the daytime, you will busy yourself with walking. It will feel like a luxury rather than a chore. The chocolate shop on Juniper Street will fill the air with sweet aromas you can find your childhood in. Soft, pleasant scents like vanilla, strong, spicy scents like nutmeg and clove, and even sharp, bold scents like cinnamon will pierce the arctic air.

With the bustling city in the background, it is easier to daydream. You find a place to do this on a bus stop bench. All of the world will hurry past. Like the frost-covered grass encased in glass, you will fade altogether out of focus until an eager traveler sits down beside you and says hello.

Her name will be Barbara or Ruby or Fey, but you remember her as the only person who saw you. Strike up a conversation with a homeless person today. You might be surprised to learn what the world looks like from their side of the frosted window.

Advocate for Your Neighbors Without Walls by Calling Your Local Legislators

Homelessness rarely gets the attention or empathy that it deserves.

The one time of year when we think about our unhoused neighbors is during winter when the reality of sleeping outside in sub-freezing conditions seems unfathomable.

This is the season when politicians use the harsh weather conditions as an excuse to enforce the so-called “quality of life laws” that actually criminalize homelessness. The next time you see that happening, get in touch with your local legislators and tell them you don’t want more hostile architecture or anti-homeless legislation. Tell them you want new laws that make housing a human right.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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