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The Polar Vortex Highlighted the Need to Address the Homeless Issue

The polar vortex brings to light several issues, from climate change ignorance to the ongoing housing crisis. More and more people have nowhere to hide from extreme weather, which was the case during the polar vortex that affected New England and the Midwest. Previous emergencies in many U.S. cities have shown that the homeless population is already at a high risk for frostbite and hypothermia, often because cities lack the resources or plans to protect them. The polar vortex hit New England and the Midwest with temperatures as low as the South Pole (below -20 degrees Fahrenheit), confining kids, teachers, and even postal workers to their homes, but left those without a home to fend for themselves to face a cold death. 21 people died in weather-related incidents during the Polar Vortex.

In 2018, 35 percent of homeless people in the United States were unsheltered, meaning they were living on the street, in abandoned buildings, or, “in other places not suitable for human habitation,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) point-in-time count. The other 65 percent were living in temporary or emergency shelters. That means that, among the country’s 553,000 homeless people, 193,550 were living outside.

Seth Kurzban, clinical associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California, told ThinkProgress that extreme events like the polar vortex can bring media exposure to much bigger issues, like the high cost of housing and homelessness. “The housing prices [in many U.S. cities] are so high. We know we haven’t seen a real increase in wages in over 30 years and, in addition, people still haven’t recovered from the Great Recession,” he said. “Now we passed a very large tax measure that is going to further concentrate wealth among the top 1 percent, leaving a lot of people further and further behind. When we talk about homelessness, too often the discussion is about individuals who we think have problems and we don’t have enough of a discussion about how this is a tax and social policy problem and how we need to create affordable housing.”

Some of the concerns for the homeless is the shelters tend to be overcrowded and, in big cities like New York or Chicago, many homeless are worried about having to struggle to survive, getting robbed, and of having to comply to many rules. In Chicago, people were staying in buses and one woman, Candice Payne, impulsively charged 20 hotel rooms on her credit card before it snowballed into a lifesaving effort by a group of strangers, CBS Chicago reports. Payne stated that the reality of the situation was that many people without homes were getting ready to sleep on the street or to be charged with trespassing in their attempts to escape from the cold. Homelessness is rising faster in communities where people spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent, according to a 2018 analysis by Zillow, and the places most vulnerable to climbing rent prices are home to 15 percent of the U.S. population. Income growth has not kept pace with rents in major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle.

John Tribbett, the street outreach manager at Minneapolis’ St. Stephen’s, told HuffPost that he hopes people will donate and reach out to help people realize this isn’t an issue that goes away with the cold. Homelessness increased for the second year in a row in 2018, and the lack of affordable living in the U.S. is a systemic problem. “The real story is the tragedy we have in this country that leads to so many people being homeless on the street in the first place,” says Tribbett. So what should you do? Contact your representatives, get involved in organizing efforts in your city or town, and agitate for policies that will improve things like affordable housing availability and the minimum wage.





  • Brito, Christopher. “Meet the Woman Who Rented Hotel Rooms for Homeless in Chicago during Dangerous Polar Vortex.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 1 Feb. 2019, www.cbsnews.com/news/candice-payne-homeless-in-chicago-candice-payne-hot….

  • Gajanan, Mahita. “21 People Died of the Cold During the Polar Vortex, Showing Just How Dangerous It Was.” Time, Time, 1 Feb. 2019, time.com/5518469/21-people-died-cold-polar-vortex.

  • Lutkin, Aimée. “How to Help the Homeless During the Polar Vortex.” Lifehacker, Lifehacker.com, 30 Jan. 2019, lifehacker.com/how-to-help-the-homeless-during-the-polar-vortex-1832199640.

  • Moon, Emily. “An Increasing Number of Unsheltered People Must Weather the Polar Vortex.” Pacific Standard, Pacific Standard, 31 Jan. 2019, psmag.com/news/an-increasing-number-of-unsheltered-people-must-weather-the-polar-vortex.

  • Quinlan, Casey. “Polar Vortex’s Impact on Unhoused People Exposes Glaring Inequality in U.S. Cities.” ThinkProgress, ThinkProgress, 31 Jan. 2019, thinkprogress.org/polar-vortex-homeless-inequality-01f9ef40ae72/.

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