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It's Cold Out There: Emergency Winter Housing Guide

Being homeless is hard at any time, but when the winter cold hits, it can be downright dangerous. There is help out there when times get desperate. If you're out in the cold without a place to sleep, look for the nearest emergency shelter.

Homelessness affects millions of Americans. Natural disasters, job loss, mental illness, and "hard times," leave families and individuals scrambling for a roof and a clean mat during the cold, dark months of winter. Given the wrong set of circumstances or a few poor decisions, families with young children, teens, middle aged, and seniors can all find themselves needing a place to sleep. Even in the worst of times, stories surface of people who survive the bad times and recover to secure a reasonable standard of living. Others fall victim to violence or deprivation.

If you are facing actual or potential homelessness this winter, you may be looking for help. Here is a brief guide to emergency shelter.

Shelter and more
When some part of the system that makes your life work breaks down, it can impact all the other systems. While you may feel that you just need a warm place to sleep through the winter months, you may find that an emergency shelter has just the resources that can help you pull life back together physically, spiritually, socially, emotionally, and financially.

Shelters provide services that extend way beyond a roof and a mat on the floor. Some serve as a hub for community support of the homeless or destitute. Nearly all have a soup kitchen that provides hot meals on a daily or weekly schedule. You will usually find clothes closets stocked with apparel that meets the demands of the season.

Beyond the immediate physical supplies, these facilities can also help with job training, government assistance, disaster relief, rehabilitation, and utility assistance. Because of the connection between human trafficking, domestic abuse, and homelessness, well-funded shelters may be able to provide a haven for those lacking a stable home environment.

Many of the facilities serving the homeless are faith-based establishments. Personnel are usually available for spiritual guidance and addiction counseling.

Don't expect to just walk in
A large misconception connected to homelessness is that space is available on a walk-in basis. In fact, few cities have such facilities, even on the coldest nights of winter. You cannot expect to show up at sunset and be housed for the night. The line may start forming in the early afternoon. When the beds are filled, everyone else is turned away. Overcrowding is a perpetual issue in urban areas. You'll want to know the check-in time and curfew or risk losing your spot.

The need for places peaks between early December and late March. Outside the peak months, thousands of homeless people live under bridges and on public or private property. They avoid shelters due to a fear of bed bugs or a distaste for required attendance at religious services. However, during the winter cold or after police shut down a section of town which the homeless had laid claim to, many homeless people have to seek whatever refuge they can find.

Driving the seasonal surge is the need to get families with school children into safe conditions. Finding a place in a seasonal shelter can be compounded by any number of factors including being a father with children. The system is set up to accommodate mothers with children. Far fewer spots are available for fathers with children.

LGBT youth are considered to be particularly at risk. Both at the shelter and at home, they are at a greater risk of exploitation. They may be evicted from their homes and find themselves victims of abuse and misunderstanding among unstable homeless persons.

Shelters also adhere to restricted stay times. These are not group homes or transitional living centers. You'll need to assess your situation and determine if you need a place for tonight and tomorrow night or if you are in need of help for the coming weeks and months.

Immediate needs
Non-profit facilities associated with church or government entities meet a tremendous need in the community. They welcome the needy and provide the basic requirements of life. While the environment may barely meet minimum standards, it is still preferable to succumbing to the elements. Life on the streets is rough, so guidelines that may sound surprisingly strict. Plan on some or all of the following.

You will need to check in during the designated hours. Attendance at a Christian service or a counseling session may be required. The staff will assume that you have come seeking help and that spiritual or emotional support may help you to re-establish relationships which can improve your situation.

An evening meal which satisfies hunger will be served. You may be asked or required to lock up any personal belongings and not be permitted to take such belongings into the living quarters. In addition to food, bedding, towels, and toiletries are usually provided. Showers are often required to maintain a standard of hygiene. Lights may be turned out surprisingly early or may be left on all night for security purposes. Shelters provide adequate care, but they aren't hotels. They have requirements, and the people using them are expected to meet a basic standard of good behavior.

Where are the shelters?
Several websites serve as databases to help you find a shelter. Most public libraries allow guests to use internet services. Some sites to check are Homeless Shelters and Rescue Mission. The Salvation Army has been impacting the community for over 100 years. Through kettle collections, the sale of donated goods, and selfless service hours by volunteers, these Christian soldiers have provided housing and meals for countless thousands.

Despite the efforts of individuals and agencies, homelessness has not been stamped out, and services are not always readily available. This winter, millions will enter emergency shelters which are sustained by private donations and concerned volunteers. They will find food, warmth, and support that can help them make it through the season and perhaps even make it on to better days.