Last night was single-digits cold — the kind of cold that bursts steel pipes and shuts down government offices. A sleety drizzle tapped a rhythm on the un-raked leaves in my yard.
I pulled the curtains, turned the thermostat up and snugged up under the blankets. My family was safe and warm in our home.
Twelve years ago, in similar weather conditions, I was out in it — chapped lips shivering, teeth chattering, nose and fingertips numb. I was pregnant, and the truck I had been living in had been towed.
Nearly 4,000 people in North Carolina are homeless this January. Shelters provide relief for some, but they often face overcrowding and under-funding — most especially in winter months. Some shelters turn people away after a certain hour, or if they suspect recent drug or alcohol consumption.
So where do people who are turned away go? What do they do?
My story is just one of thousands, but it’s mine and so I will share it with you.
The truck had been my only transportation and home. It was late, and the shelters were not an option. I had neither family nor friends nearby to take me in. So I walked.
I went to Walmart to keep warm, wandering the aisles until they closed at midnight. After that, I hung out until 2 am in an empty bar drinking water and pretending I was waiting on someone. The bartender offered me a ride home, but I didn’t have an address to give him.
Later that night, I found myself on the doorstep of an elderly man that I barely knew. He took me in and let me sleep near the kerosene heater in his single-room rental. The next night, I broke into a condemned house, just to get out of the cold.
In North Carolina, even the very best funded and prepared towns and cities lack the infrastructure to deal with harsh weather conditions. Public safety announcements from the governor’s office consistently warn NC families to stay off the roads, out of the elements, and to be prepared for long stays in as the limited number of salt trucks and electricians try to get the roads clear and power outages resolved.
But not everyone has the option to stay indoors.
Some shelters extend entry hours and loosen restrictions in times of extreme cold. Still others recognize the need to bring supplies out into the community, as some homeless citizens choose to remain in the elements for a variety of reasons.
Helping the homeless is a need that is immediate — especially as the ice storms and subzero temperatures loom — but there is also the long-term need of treating the root causes of indigence.
Assistance for those exiting abusive relationships, treatment for drug addiction and mental/emotional disorders, and support for returning veterans are just a few of the issues at the tip of this iceberg. We must increase funding to both programming and prevention.
In the meantime, I do what I can on an individual level by keeping coats and gloves in my trunk to give to homeless people I meet. And I share my story, because it is but one of thousands, and because I can. I’m warm now, and safe. And isn’t that the least we can offer anyone?