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01/24/2014

What Happens to Philly's Homeless Community During Frigid Weather?

MetrauxStephen Metraux, PhD, associate professor of health policy and public health, has done extensive research on homelessness and housing,as well as other aspects of urban health. He is also working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as part of their commitment to ending homelessness among veterans by 2015.

With the recent streak of bone-chilling weather, Dr. Metraux weighed in on how this weather impacts Philadelphia's homeless community. Here's what he had to say:

If you were fortunate enough to be somewhere warm during this recent cold snap, you may have been wondering what happens to those who do not have access to warm shelter.  In particular, how do people who are homeless and subsisting on the streets go about surviving in this cold?

Data on how many homeless are stuck out in the cold are difficult to come by. The homeless population is notoriously challenging to count, as they usually strive to stay inconspicuous amidst the public spaces to which they are relegated. The best available number comes from the City of Philadelphia’s annual “Point in Time” count, when teams of volunteers canvass the shelters and the streets and count the homeless people and families that they encounter.  Of the 5,625 homeless persons counted on a January night in 2012, 526 (9%) were unsheltered.

So how do these 526 persons survive the elements on nights like those we have recently had? The first line of defense is provided by the City of Philadelphia, who implement a “Code Blue” on any night when “real feel” temperatures fall under or around 20 degrees. On Code Blue nights, outreach workers and police can bring any homeless person in to stay in a shelter or other public facility temporarily designated for overnight accommodations. No one gets turned away and, if necessary, a Court Ordered Transportation to Shelter (COTS) can be quickly obtained to bring resistant persons indoors on occasions when leaving a person outdoors may subject him or her to danger from the elements.

Code Blue’s success is best indicated by the rarity of hypothermia deaths among homeless persons in the past few years.  But Code Blue is at best a stopgap solution.  The best solution for protecting the homeless from the elements is through renewed efforts to reduce homelessness. The number of street homeless in Philadelphia have been declining over the previous few years, due largely to innovative programs to engage the most recalcitrant homeless persons and provide them with housing and services.  The more this continues, the less we need to worry about homeless persons on nights like these.

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