A 24 Degree Drop in 24 Hours: What Winter Means for Homeless Neighbors
The weather changed. One day it was 50 degrees and the next it was 26. I’m no mathematician, but I believe that’s a 24 degree drop. 24 degrees in 24 hours. In my family, it meant jumping from sweatshirts to heavy jackets.
We went down to the basement and rummaged through bins of storage until we found the biggest one labeled “Winter.” Winter means a lot of things for our family. It means starting the cars 10 minutes before we have to get the kids inside of them. It means decorations. We get to put things up on our walls and doors that symbolize the significance of the celebration of family, provision, and most importantly, the birth of Jesus Christ.
But as I walked into one of the outreach locations where we serve, there were hundreds of men and women with no storage bins labeled “Winter.” These folks were waiting impatiently for the opportunity to get something, anything, that would keep them alive as they huddle under scaffolding or get chased around Penn Station.
I realized that a 24-degree drop meant something completely different to our friends with no cars to warm up and no homes to decorate. I realized that while I can celebrate the joys of the winter season, and all that comes with it, I must also intentionally choose NOT to ignore the men and women in my life with seemingly nothing to celebrate.
The truth is that I still forget the impact of small changes for my friends experiencing homelessness. Weather can be the difference between making or missing that appointment with a social worker. When we are spending lots of time outside we need to have clothing that is weather-appropriate, or people can die. At the same time, the fear of shelters and the unknown of who will end up sleeping next door can force our homeless neighbors to roll the dice on the cold instead of the unpredictability of humans.
Humans. That’s the part that hit me most as I looked at that crowd of men and women desperately trying to escape the elements. My heart broke because I couldn’t expand the room and turn a stressful waiting room into a relaxing oasis experience. There was just too many people.
Matthew 9:36 says, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
We need to start by seeing the people. Some think homeless folks are hard to miss. But there are others all around us who are hurting and alone. Many people who are recently homeless due to eviction, domestic violence, loss of employment, or release from prison are harder to spot and also way more vulnerable to exploitation. So let’s pray that God gives us “eyes to see” this new year.
But it’s not enough to see, we need to see with compassion. Right now, there are lots of stories in the press about homelessness. Many of them are negative. There are ideas out there that somehow these people are all choosing to be homeless, or that they are all dangerous, or even that they are all addicted. These ideas just make it easier for us to see them and hate them instead of following the example of Jesus and feeling compassion. As Christians, we understand that Jesus was born into poverty and surrendered all his power as an eternal founding member in the God-squad to die naked on a Roman torture device for the sake of sinners like me. We can no more judge the homeless man with his pants falling off than we can our own Starbucks habit. The point is, as a coworker once said to me, “There is no us and them, there is just us.”
So in the new year, please don’t avoid celebrating the good things in your lives because there are others out there with less. Instead, give them something to celebrate as well! When you’re buying Starbucks gift cards for your kids teachers, buy a few extra to give to someone sitting outside in the freezing cold. When you go to Target for essentials, get some new extra-thick socks for someone who could genuinely lose a toe in the freezing cold. Find a way for your family to buy gifts to surprise kids at a family shelter.
The point is, 24 degrees in 24 hours is not just the start of winter—24 degrees in 24 hours means, as Christians, we have a lot of work to do, to be the healing and warming hands of Jesus that mobilize compassion for the crowds and inspire others to do the same.
Josiah Haken is the VP of Outreach Operations at New York City Relief.
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