In the past week in southeastern Pennsylvania it has snowed twice, once with a topping of freezing rain and sleet. Last Friday morning the temperature with the wind chill was between -10 and -15 degrees. The coldest weather this area has seen in 50+ years. This morning it was 1 degree without the wind chill. When people meet in public the topic is how cold it is and how ready everyone is for Spring to get here.
This morning at the food pantry I met Bill (not his real name). He is ready for Spring to come too. Bill is homeless and lives in a tent. He knows exactly how cold it has been and what type of precipitation has been falling from the sky. Twice his tent has collapsed on him from the weight of the snow. He has a kerosene heater, but no kerosene. Bill keeps warm with and cooks over an open fire. He has been given permission to “camp” within the patrolled area of a local food manufacturer’s property because his tent has been burglarized more than once. What little money he has, Bill makes from selling firewood, otherwise he has no income. He cleans a friend’s home in exchange for her driving him places and allowing him to store items, like eggs, in her refrigerator.
His homeless situation presented us with challenges in gathering his food. First we had to make sure he had gotten a ride, which he luckily had. Otherwise he could only take what he could carry. The other volunteer working with me today knew of Bill’s situation, so she knew he could only have cans and only ones with a pop tops. He needs cans because he can put them right in his fire to warm them and pop tops because his can opener has been stolen twice. The extreme temperatures make keeping liquids problematic for him. He does have a cooler but he said the water he had, had frozen solid the other day even in the cooler. In spite of these challenges, we were able to send Bill on his way with several items.
According to a Point-in-Time count conducted on January 29, 2014, 684 people were experiencing homelessness on that night here in Pennsylvania’s wealthiest county. Point-in-Time counts are used to help determine how many people are experiencing homeless on any given night in an area. This figure includes those in emergency shelters, transitional housing, receiving motel subsidies and, like Bill, unsheltered. Even if Bill had wanted to come in out of the cold, there are no shelters in our corner of this county. The nearest ones are 25-30 miles away.
I would have not been surprised if Bill had been bitter or angry, but he was not. He said he had too much to do to think about being cold, but he lingered with us as long as he could. It is forecast to be below average in temperature for at least the next week. Tonight, as I get into my bed with flannel sheets and three blankets, I will think about Bill and hope that he is okay. At least I know he won’t be hungry.