For many people, cold weather means staying inside to curl up with a warm drink, cozy clothing and lots of blankets. But for people experiencing homelessness, those simple luxuries and a warm place to be are often unavailable. Instead, cold weather means exposure to bitter cold nights and sometimes life-threatening conditions.
Arizona is usually not associated with below-freezing temperatures, but spend a night unsheltered in the desert and the temperature dip into the 40s and sometimes 30s can make anyone acutely aware of the cold without a proper coat or a blanket.
That’s why one of the top winter donations St. Vincent de Paul seeks is warm clothing — particularly jeans, jackets, coats and boots to help protect guests living on the street from the bitter cold temps.
“To someone who needs a jacket, it means the world to them,” said Sara Dukes, who works in the SVdP Resource Center for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. “It makes them happy knowing they will be warm.”
The SVdP Resource Center supplies jackets and blankets to guests even when temperatures seem mild. This is because it doesn’t take extreme cold to risk developing hypothermia, which can set in when temperatures dip below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hypothermia is a real concern for the homeless. When the body temperature drops dangerously low, it threatens the health and normal function of organs. Left untreated, hypothermia leads to heart and respiratory failure, which means that the onset of the condition requires immediate medical attention.
In some cases, a coat could be the difference between developing hypothermia or not. That’s why many individuals on the street scramble to find anything to keep warm.
Teresa Garcia, a SVdP Resource Center guest, relies on social service agencies for the blanket, sleeping bag and clothing she needs to stay warm while living on the street.
“But even though you have a blanket, it’s still cold and one can freeze to death if you don’t have enough blankets and jackets to keep you warm,” Teresa said. “Sometimes if I see someone who is cold, I’ll take off my jacket and give it to them if they really need it.”
That’s what brought her back to SVdP to retrieve another jacket for herself. But obtaining a blanket or jacket is never guaranteed because homeless shelters and resource centers often run low on them. According to Sara, more than half of the people who visit the Resource Center this time of year come in specifically for winter clothing and request a jacket, sweater, long sleeve shirt or blanket.
Due to the demand, there are guests who will came in and ask for things that aren’t always in stock or are only available in uncommon sizes.
“We have women, men and children that will come in, and regardless if we have their size — whether it’s too big or too small or too short or too long — they will take it for that protection,” Sara said.
The need for jackets, blankets, sweaters, sleeping bags and other alternatives last well into April.
A jacket, sweater, pair of jeans or sweatpants can make a huge difference for those experiencing homelessness. While the jacket or blanket helps provide protection from the bitter cold temperatures, harsh winds and heavy rains, it also provides a sense of security.
“It feels comfortable,” Teresa said, “and it feels like you are receiving a gift from God or an angel who came upon you to give something warm.”