1/17/09

Surviving the Arctic Blast

This past week the United States has been struggling with an extreme cold snap. Most people in the U.S. have been forced to deal with climatic conditions beyond their scope of resources. Electricity has gone out, school has been canceled, cars have stopped working, and regions that rarely dip below 32°F are enduring freezing temperatures.

Although the cold snap has been compared to the Arctic, our temperatures up here are still quite a bit colder. Lately we've been in the -40°F to -60°F range. At these temperatures even our insulated sewage pipes are bursting, but for the most part citizens are proceeding with life as usual. However, one group has become increasingly vulnerable.

Many people are surprised to learn that Arctic towns like Yellowknife have a homeless population. During the day the homeless people hang out in the entryways to businesses and spend time in the library or caf├ęs. Unfortunately, unlike most towns and cities I've lived in down south, the problem up here is that there isn't a comprehensive support system for after business hours. Once the shops close down there are very few options. Yellowknife has four banks on Main Street with indoor ATM services. These spaces provide a warm shelter, but only temporarily. The law enforcement officers routinely patrol the main drag and force people to leave.

The one remaining option seems to be the vestibules for apartment buildings. I live in a downtown apartment that has one of these heated entryways. After 9pm there are generally about four people standing in the small space, trying to keep warm.

Usually there is a strong smell of alcohol in the space when I pass through. I do admit that at first this intimidated me because I know that use of alcohol can increase violence. But most people do not drink alcohol on cold nights because they are intending to cause physical harm. Alcohol makes the human body feel warm, even when it isn't.

Now I'm accustomed to the presence of my downstairs neighbors. Whenever I enter the building I take a few moments to chat with them. Showing a modicum of decency to them guarantees that they will also respect me and my requests. For example, one night one of the men tried to follow me into the building. While I hated barring entrance to him, there are signs all over the building underscoring the importance of respecting the living space by making sure that we only allow people we know personally onto the property. When I apologized to the man and said that I wasn't allowed to let him in, he immediately agreed that that would be against the rules and stayed in the entryway.

Two nights ago I was returning from a movie when I ran into a group of people in the vestibule. We chatted about the frigid weather for a minute. When I turned to go one of the men told me, "We promise that we'll leave really soon, we just had to get warm for a second." It was 9pm and no businesses would be open for 12 hours. The temperature was -40°F. I was confused about why he would say that he was leaving soon. Didn't he need a place to sleep all night? I assured him that he should stay as long as he needed to.

It wasn't until I had arrived in my apartment that I realized why he told me this. My neighbors must call the police to have the homeless people chased away from our building. While I understand the passing by a group of unknown people can be intimidating, this course of action is entirely unwarranted. Like all people, homeless people frequent familiar territory. The easiest way to avoid the problem of being intimidated by strangers is to make their acquaintances.

As I was relaying the story about being angry that my neighbors would call the police, a friend reminded me that most homeful people don't realize what limited options are available to people who are homeless. Even in cities with solid shelter systems, overcrowding is often a problem. In addition, there are many vulnerable populations for whom staying at a shelter is too dangerous.

When extreme cold hits an area, the homeless are at great risk for dying. Their only option for surviving may be to stand in the ATM that you'd like to use for a few minutes, or to huddle in the corner of the entryway to your building. As this cold wave sweeps across areas of the U.S. that are unaccustomed to frigid conditions, I'd like to point out that there are some who can't go home and curl up under a blanket. Instead of calling the police, try neutralizing any perceived threat by introducing yourself, or commenting on the weather, or offering predictions on the local sports teams. You'll most likely discover that the homeless people are just like you, only colder.

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