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Extreme weather and the dangers of being homeless

FILE – A man stands next to tents on a sidewalk in San Francisco on April 21, 2020. Homeless people are asking a federal judge for an emergency order to stop San Francisco from dismantling tent encampments without offering shelter beds. They are also asking the court at a hearing Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, to stop the city from destroying the belongings of homeless people. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Just before Christmas, much of the United States was hit by an extraordinary weather event: Winter Storm Elliott. In Chicago, we saw temperatures that dipped down to -10 degrees Fahrenheit with windchills that hit below -40 on the backs of 40-mile-per-hour winds. Such weather is dangerous to everyone, but it is particularly dangerous to people experiencing homelessness on our streets. Regardless of how good a person’s tent, gloves, hat and coat are, it is impossible to stay safe and warm in those conditions for more than a few minutes. Add in that many people experiencing homelessness are dealing with health issues due to limited access to regular health care, and we have incredible cause for concern.

For example, in Chicago, the city mounts an emergency response that involves utilizing a series of warming centers, including using public libraries and park field houses, paired with a 311 call system that will dispatch people to do wellness checks on those in danger and take them to a place they can be safe and warm, if they so choose. This system is far from perfect, but the hardworking city and nonprofit employees who assist those experiencing homelessness in these moments are doing lifesaving work.

While the homeless services community must always be looking at how we improve our emergency response in moments of crisis, the best place for us to put or time, energy and resources establishing the deep funding and strong policies necessary for creating the permanent housing and supports that people living on the streets, in shelters, and living doubled-up need.

Extreme weather events such as the one we just experienced are not going away. To the contrary, climate change only means they are expected continue to increase in frequency and intensity. In order to combat this reality, we must build a resilient system that minimizes the number of people in harms ways when these events occur.

The good news is, we know how to end homelessness. It is not a mystery.

We solve homelessness through housing — affordable housing. Affordable housing and supports to attend people’s health and well-being. Study after study shows people stay out of homelessness when they have access to permanent housing they can afford.

Our question isn’t what do we do, but where do we find the political will to do it?

The latest omnibus federal funding bill passed by Congress included a 13.1 percent increase in Homelessness Assistance Grants, as well as other increases in existing programs. While this increase is promising, it does not meet the need we see across the nation. At the same time, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) released its new strategic plan, “All In,” which sets the goal of reducing unsheltered homelessness by 25 percent by 2025. Focusing both on getting people out of homelessness and preventing them from entering it to begin with, the plan rightly centers equity and focuses on coordination across federal agencies and different levels of government.

While these are promising steps toward focusing on the core issue, it’s not enough.

The scope and depth of funding must be increased on the federal, state and local levels and policies need to be changed to make it easier to build the affordable housing people need and for those in need to access that housing.

On the federal policy level, aside from increasing funding, Congress should pass the Homeless Children and Youth Act, which reforms HUD Homeless Assistance programs by aligning federal definitions of homelessness, allowing children, youth and families access to the services they need. Such a change would make it easier for people experiencing all forms of homelessness, including doubled-up, to access help to prevent them from moving into unsheltered homelessness which increases exposure to extreme weather.

Creating robust local funding is another critical component to creating resiliency. In Chicago, for example, the Bring Chicago Home campaign has been working for years to create a local, dedicated funding stream at scale that would create funding for permanent housing and supports, as well as homelessness prevention, that could generate $130 million annually to serve not only the unsheltered homeless — but also those living doubled-up with others. This initiative requires voter approval of a ballot question, but both Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her allies on city council have reportedly blocked the measure. Similar measures have been created in cities and states across the nation.

These are just two examples of where there has apparently not been the political will to enact the proactive policies and funding needed to reduce the scope of future crisis. The best way to ensure people are protected when harm comes is to ensure they aren’t in harm’s way to begin with. For homelessness, we do that by creating affordable housing at scale for people experiencing homelessness in its many forms. If our elected officials focus on practical measures to end homelessness instead of reactive ways to manage it, the next bomb cyclone, polar vortex or extreme winter storm might not be so dangerous and deadly.

Doug Schenkelberg is the executive director of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. He has over 20 years of experience in housing, hunger and poverty advocacy and policy work in the Chicago area. Follow the organization on Twitter: @ChiHomeless

Tags bomb cyclone Climate change extreme weather Homelessness winter sotrm

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