With the arrival of the first snow of the season, many of us can’t help but imagine what the quickly approaching winter will hold for us. For some, winter evokes imagery of cozy evenings indoors, sipping on hot chocolate, and enjoying the warm glow of a fireplace.
For others, the changing of seasons seems to bear something more grim. The shorter days and extreme cold mean less time spent outdoors, more hours of darkness, and even the annual return of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects roughly 5% of Americans every winter.
Coping with these changes can be difficult for anyone, but having access to a warm home and social support can make it easier to manage one’s mental health during this time. For the homeless members of our communities, these are not easy to come by — especially during winter.
For many homeless people, the winter months don’t just represent a nuisance. They can be deadly. With temperatures regularly dipping below freezing, the realities of homeless living change dramatically in the winter. During my time as a homeless outreach worker in New Haven, I engaged with several community members who spoke of the winter with more than just dread. It was fear.
During the spring and summer, having the option to sleep outdoors or in a tent is crucial for many unhoused residents. Many expressed a strong preference for outdoor living, even when there was a spot waiting for them in a local shelter. In New Haven, as in many other cities across the U.S., homeless shelters are understaffed and overcrowded. For many, the cramped spaces, lack of privacy, and noise, add up to an unacceptable living situation.
However, in the winter, choice quickly becomes a luxury. Nights spent outdoors during the winter can be lethal, and finding a place to sleep indoors is essential. Cities like New Haven open warming centers to take in unhoused residents, but these shelters are only open during the nighttime. Each morning, residents are forced to leave one of the four warming centers available city-wide, only able to return in the evening — usually several hours after the sun has gone down.
Warming centers suffer from the same issues as any other shelter; high demand and limited resources make for uncomfortable conditions, and the forced daily removal routine makes it unlikely that any of the residents will consider it a home by any means. These circumstances on their own can take a significant toll on the mental health of homeless residents, giving rise to increased stress and depression. However, coming to terms with the fact that the only alternative is to freeze overnight is devastating.
Beyond sleeping arrangements, outdoor living during the spring and summer allows homeless individuals to access essential social support and community. In New Haven, spaces like The Green, a large park in the center of downtown, are ideal for spending the day with friends and companions. Spaces like this also serve as an access point for essential resources, such as clothing, community health services, and mobile shower facilities. However, as the weather changes, outdoor community outreach efforts become gradually more scarce. In addition, the sense of community that people come to rely on often dissipates, as finding access to any shelter becomes priority number one.
Homeless individuals are already less likely to have access to strong support networks than their housed counterparts. This is only exacerbated during the winter, as opportunities to spend time outdoors with friends becomes not only uncomfortable, but unsafe. Social support is a proven buffer against poor mental health outcomes, and without it the homeless members of our communities face heightened risk of depression and anxiety.
While there’s nothing we can do about the changes that winter brings, there are ways to better support our homeless community members and promote positive mental health during this time. Across Connecticut, cities must invest in expanding the shelter facilities available during the winter. Reductions in overcrowding, in combination with efforts to hire more shelter staff, can help create a more positive experience for unhoused residents.
In addition, greater effort must be made to develop community programming for homeless residents during the winter months. Granting access to local community centers for mealtime social hours and providing times for group-based development activities (e.g., applying for benefits, resume crafting) can help individuals access much-needed social support.
Winter can be a difficult time for anyone, and every person deserves access to resources that can help them manage their mental health during this time. For homeless community members, the gap in available resources is massive, and winter is nearly here. Policymakers and city officials — the time to act is now.
Ivan Hurtado is a Master’s of Public Health Candidate at the Yale School of Public Health.