Frigid ‘Polar Vortex’ Puts Homeless in Extreme Danger
Adam Schneider: Cities have taken action to house their homeless populations in face of record cold temperatures but fail to prevent and end homelessness
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
A so-called polar vortex has brought record low temperatures from the Midwest to the East Coast. With wind chills reported as low as -70 degrees, many cities, like Baltimore, issued special advisories for their homeless populations, making emergency services and shelters available.
Now joining us to discuss this is Adam Schneider. He’s the director of community relations for Health Care for the Homeless here in Baltimore.
Thank you so much for joining us.
ADAM SCHNEIDER, DIRECTOR OF COMMUNITY RELATIONS, HEALTH CARE FOR THE HOMELESS: Thank you.
NOOR: So, Adam, talk about what these record low temperatures mean for the homeless today. We know here in Baltimore at least 3,000 people are homeless every night. The highs on Tuesday are expected to be in the teens.
SCHNEIDER: Yeah. I mean, the experience of homelessness is one that is very difficult to survive. People experiencing homelessness are three to four times more likely to die prematurely than their housed counterparts. And temperatures like this, weather like this is really–it’s really unbearable. And so it’s laudable that there are these emergency responses that are intended to help people get off the streets, at least for the time being, when the weather’s so terrible.
NOOR: And so this response involves either optional or mandatory placement into homeless shelters. Talk about what this means and if this is an effective solution.
SCHNEIDER: Well, I mean, it’s not an effective solution to the problem of homelessness, but it is an effective response to the immediate need. Right? The immediate need tonight is to ensure that there are places for people to go anytime tonight so that they don’t freeze to death on our streets.
An effective response to homeless is to ensure that adequate housing is available for people, to ensure that people’s incomes are livable, to ensure that there are supportive services, health services, the things that all of us need in order to maintain ourselves into housing.
But that’s the discussion that we need to have had yesterday. That’s the discussion that we need to be having tomorrow and the next day. Today, it’s really important that we be having this discussion about how to ensure that people are able to get off the streets and into places that are warmer and safer.
NOOR: And on that point, cities like Baltimore have at least 10,000 vacant homes. The actual number might be many times that amount. Talk about why this issue of homelessness exists in this country we live in, the wealthiest country in history.
SCHNEIDER: Yeah. Well, I mean, homelessness, you know, many people don’t remember a time that there wasn’t mass homelessness, but for people who are a little bit older, they’ll remember a time when there wasn’t this number of people, there wasn’t such a diverse cross-section of people experiencing homelessness.
Homelessness fundamentally is caused by policy decisions–most importantly, policy decisions that have led to stagnant, in fact, reduced wages over time and a real disinvestment in affordable housing. So that’s fundamentally the causes.
Now, there are, you know, tens of thousands of vacant buildings in Baltimore City. I’m sure that there are people who are going to be spending the night in those buildings tonight, as there are many nights. You know. So when we talk about the number of people experiencing homelessness, the number of people who need shelters, you know, oftentimes it’s an undercount. Right? There are people who are doubled up with family and friends tonight. Tomorrow, who knows? There are people who are sleeping in abandoned buildings who weren’t counted the last time we did homeless census.
So it’s really, you know, important that we be doing everything we can to expand, as much as we can, the emergency shelter today, and then ensuring that there’s an adequate supply of affordable housing tomorrow and in the future.
NOOR: And so just in the last few weeks and months, we’ve seen food stamps cut, unemployment benefits that expired. Federal sequestration has hit many agencies that provide services for the homeless, that provide housing, federal housing programs. Yet you still see reports claiming that homelessness is in decline. What’s your response?
SCHNEIDER: Well, I think that–a couple of responses. I think that in this, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, the fact that we would cut food subsidies for people who are poor, for poor kids, many of them, is really beyond the pale. I mean, it makes us–we should be thinking, who are we, when we’re allowing–when our leaders are making these sorts of decisions.
You know, the idea that homelessness is in the decline is something that I’ve read and seen. I think it’s highly dubious. You mentioned cuts to food stamps. You mentioned cuts through sequestration. You mentioned cuts as a result of unemployment benefits not being extended.
I mean, homelessness is largely the result of cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget over the past 40 years. So today HUD’s budget is about 40 percent of what it was in 1979. Cuts through the Carter administration, the Reagan administration, the Bush administration, the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, the Obama administration–we haven’t even gotten back to where we were in 1979. And that disinvestment in affordable housing at the federal level has ripple effects at the state and local level. In Baltimore City, you know, we’ve seen the demolition of large swaths, 40 percent–over 40 percent of the once occupied public housing units have been demolished in Baltimore City. And that’s not unique. Nationally, this is what’s happening.
At the same time as we are reducing the supply of housing affordable to people who are very poor, we are increasing the number of people who are very poor. Wages are stagnant. People who have disabilities are living on, you know, a paltry amount that isn’t enough to rent an affordable–a efficiency unit. Even the minimum wage, the federal minimum wage, there’s not a single jurisdiction in the United States where a minimum-wage worker working full-time can afford housing at the fair market rent.
So it’s all of these things that create homelessness and have created homelessness over the past 40 years. And that’s what we need to be focused on, as I say, going forward. Today it’s really important that we focus on getting people off the streets and making sure that there are places that people can go that they feel safe, that they feel respected. But tomorrow and in the future we need to worry about not just how to manage this problem, which we’ve been doing for 40 years, but really how to end it.
NOOR: Adam Schneider, thank you so much for joining us.
SCHNEIDER: My pleasure. Absolutely.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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