The winds of winter are howling early this year; we’ve even had a pre-Thanksgiving tracking snow.
For most of us, that means turning up the thermostat a little earlier than we’d like to, and perhaps grabbing a sweater or two out of storage before we’d planned to switch things around in our closets.
For people living on the streets or in their cars, though, the screaming of a sub-freezing wind means a great deal more than that.
It’s a cause for concern.
Last week and this, when nighttime temperatures fell well below freezing for several nights in a row, Natalie Harris, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless in Louisville, noted that on such nights “there are more people in need than there are available beds.” Hundreds of individuals and families, she said, “are forced to find other options … many times this means sleeping on the streets.”
And this in a city that is known as one of the nation’s most progressive when it comes to its efforts to help the homeless.
Nevertheless, the early cold and snow should remind all of us that the coming holidays and the Advent season are times to help those charities and agencies that are committed to helping others — those people without coats, without homes, without even a warm place to sleep.
The city has already launched its “Operation White Flag” on more than a few evenings. When temperatures drop to 35 degrees or lower in the winter, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, Operation White Flag is instituted and three local shelters open their doors to make space for everyone who wants inside.
“Even without a bed for each person,” Harris said, the shelters make pallets on the floors so the homeless can avoid frostbite or hypothermia.
Despite the apparent early arrival of winter, the U.S. Census Bureau recently released statistics which indicate that the overall poverty rate in the nation has fallen a point or two. Even locally there have been a few bright spots in the otherwise continual trials faced by those who battle homelessness and poverty. Yet on Nov. 17, the National Center on Family Homelessness released a report saying that at some point in 2013, about 2.5 million American children were homeless. That, the report said, is an all time high.
Harris agrees there is some good news, too, with the caveat about family homelessness.
From her perspective, while there has been “a small decrease in the numbers of homeless” in the last year or so, “family homelessness is actually going up.”
“We’ve had additional resources provided for homeless veterans and that’s wonderful,” she said. “But there are families who have moms and dads who might be working, but they can’t survive on minimum wage or near-minimum wage jobs.”
So they end up in shelters, perhaps for a short time, and then find their way back into a home or an apartment. “But over the course of a year or so, a growing number of families are in and out of shelters,” Harris explained. “While the numbers of single homeless people have gone down a bit, there haven’t been any new resources for families in the past four or five years.”
Maria Price, executive director of the St. John Center for homeless men on Liberty Street, said last week that in the face of the “good news” from the U.S. Census Bureau, the St. John Center remains as busy and crowded as ever.
The good news is, though, that her agency and others in the city have put federal Housing and Urban Development dollars to good use and have found permanent, subsidized housing for men and families who would otherwise be homeless. The St. John Center housing program, Price noted, has helped place 92 men “who used to be sitting in our chairs each day into their own apartments.”
“And of those 92 men, 58 were veterans,” she said. “The Veterans Administration has, for several years, prioritized supported housing for veterans, and the veterans they’ve helped — those 58 — they found right here at St. John Center.”
That’s all good, but Price tempered it with the ever-present reality faced by those trying to help the needy. “Now is no time to retreat” on efforts to help, she said.
There are news reports that indicate the federal government may next year freeze or even reduce funding for such housing programs, “and that would be a shame, since we are just now making advances,” said Price, whose agency is one of those still
operating under the equivalent of a “paycheck to paycheck” budget.
So, if we are to answer Pope Francis’ call to serve “the least” of those among us, if we are to provide the church’s preferential option for the poor — and if we can’t volunteer our own services — we can at least help with financial contributions to the St. John Center, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Sister Visitor Center, Catholic Charities and other agencies that render this needed aid.
As we cut our turkeys or open our presents this season, let’s remind ourselves to do a little more to help those trying to help others.