Winter Weather on the Streets

By Colleen Sinsky

For the past week, temperatures in Portland have been dipping below freezing each night. Being from Southern California, scraping ice off my windshield in the morning is a pretty exciting battle against Mother Nature, and about as close as I’d prefer to get to the elements at this time of year. This morning as I walked from my car to the JOIN office I passed by a group of our homeless folks huddled outside waiting for our day space to open at 10am. Not that I’m living in luxury as a full-time volunteer, but that stark contrast between our lives continues to blindside me.

While writing this I took a break to catch up with “Adrian” who until recently camped in a beautiful forested area overlooking downtown Portland. When I visited his camp it was summer, and I was amazed at what a secluded and well-kept camp he kept. Talking about winter there though, he said “It just sucks. I had to use about four sleeping bags and a bunch of quilts to be able to sleep. As soon as I woke up, I’d high-tail it to a warm bus.” Adrian got his sleeping bags from organizations around town, including JOIN who receive donations of warm gear to pass out during winter. Lately, Quinn and Lio and I have taken the van out downtown to give sleeping bags and blankets to people sleeping on “the 2 C’s- Cardboard and Concrete” during these chilly nights. Adrian is now living in an apartment and is really appreciating being indoors this winter, but we could always use donations of warm blankets and sleeping bags for the many people still sleeping outside.

Cold temperatures make the experience of living outside exponentially more uncomfortable, and at times dangerous. According to a 2008 survey by Portland’s Bureau of Housing and Community Development, the Vulnerability Index, 14% of homeless individuals in Portland had medical issues related to cold exposure. During severe winter weather, the county opens emergency warming shelters operated by the Red Cross that will accept anyone (and pets) for the night. According to 211info “The criteria used to determine a Severe Weather Alert and the corresponding opening of Red Cross emergency warming centers is: A low temperature predicted at or below 22° F, or three or more nights predicted at or below 25° F.” I imagine I’d still be pretty uncomfortable spending hours on end outside in weather outside of this when the usual warming shelters are full.

We’re all lucky right now that at least this unusually cold snap is a dry one. Unfortunately this won’t be the case all winter, and it won’t be long before we’re dealing with ice storms and snow- when tarps become a lifesaving resource on the streets.