It’s always recommended to get a bumper-to-bumper inspection of our vehicles at least once a year right before winter; from checking the antifreeze and brakes, to batteries and wiper blades. It’s also recommended to do a checklist to winterize our homes including: having the furnace checked by a service technician, replacing the air filter, clearing obstacles to heating vents, and insulating doors, windows, and exposed water pipes.

This time of year many of us begin our yearly chore of going through our closets and exchanging our summer clothes for our warmer winter apparel. Some of us may even opt to purchase new winter coats in anticipation of the approaching cold season.

So what should we do to winterize the homeless?

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, seven hundred people experiencing or at risk of homelessness die from hypothermia annually in the United States. Forty-four percent of the nation’s homeless are unsheltered. From the urban streets of our populated cities to the remote back-country of rural America, hypothermia – or subnormal temperature in the body – remains a leading, critical and preventable cause of injury and death among those experiencing homelessness.

Hypothermia does not occur only when the ambient temperature becomes very cold.  Wind and precipitation, which lower the perceived temperature, can cause the body to lose heat more quickly.  Wet clothing causes a 20-fold increase in heat loss, and wet clothing in cold weather can cause heat to be lost 32 times faster.  Adequate clothing, including hats and mittens, helps prevent hypothermia by creating a static layer of warm air, keeping the skin dry, and creating a barrier against the wind. Hats are especially crucial: up to 50% of a person’s body heat can be lost through an uncovered head.  Inadequate clothing is also a risk factor for frostbite.  Additional risk factors for hypothermia include malnutrition, decreased body fat, underlying infection, lack of fitness, fatigue, inadequate shelter and heat, and other pre-existing medical conditions. Infants and elderly people are particularly vulnerable.  Other risk factors for frostbite include diabetes, smoking, and the presence of an infected wound.

Many of these risk factors are common among the homeless population.  Due to the circumstances of life on the streets, many homeless people do not have hats, gloves, or other clothing necessary for cold weather, and do not have extra outfits to change into when their clothing becomes wet.  Many homeless people are not able to eat full or healthy meals and, as a result, suffer from malnutrition.  People experiencing homelessness are three to six times more likely to become ill than housed people. (National Health Care for the Homeless Council 2008)

Homelessness itself is associated with higher levels of hypothermia-related death. Relatively few people die directly from hypothermia. However, people who are homeless often have nowhere to go when the temperature drops.  Even those who seek shelter and are allowed to enter a homeless shelter are frequently turned back onto the streets during the day. The homeless population is at greatly increased risk for hypothermia and other cold-related conditions. Many of the homeless service providers in Omaha are open 24 hours each day during the year when the temperature falls below 40o F.

World Herald Staff Writer, Erin Grace, reported in her March 2010 article that the number of homeless people in the Omaha metropolitan area grew this year by 13 percent. The rise in the homeless population comes at a time when agencies are increasing housing options and launching programs to prevent homelessness funded by federal stimulus dollars.

Harsh winters are seen as a partial driver of the high numbers, but shelters such as the Siena-Francis House in Omaha had already seen an increase before the first flurries fell last winter.

“I saw more people losing jobs or having hours cut to the point where they just couldn’t sustain the housing,” said Mike Saklar, director of Siena-Francis House, at 1702 Nicholas St. January numbers, he said, were “off the charts.”

The 341-bed shelter housed an average of 473 people in January of 2010 and 468 people in February, up from 405 and 395, respectively, for those months in 2009. On Jan. 27, 491 people stayed at Siena-Francis House. An additional 10 people were counted outdoors; six in tents and four in cars at the shelter. Temperatures that day ranged from 16 to 27 degrees.

Now, helping missions overseas is commendable and I encourage everyone who is able, to get involved in missionary work in other countries. But there is also a great mission field right here in our own backyard. And although writing a check for a generous donation to one of the many homeless shelters is also commendable, (and I encourage it) maybe sometimes God doesn’t want us to just send money; maybe He wants us to go and get personally involved.

We all know that weather can be extremely difficult to predict. Another cold winter could be deadly for someone living on the streets. Far too long we have ignored the homeless and made them the invisible community. I challenge everyone reading this to go out and get to know these people struggling with poverty and homelessness. You’ll be surprised to find out that they’re not that different than you and I. They have hopes and dreams of a better life for their children. They are doing the best they can in this economy to care for their loved ones.

I would encourage people to visit one of your local homeless shelters and find out where they could use your help. Talk to them about starting a winter clothing drive. There is so much we can do to help the homeless community that doesn’t take much effort, time, or money.

A few years ago my wife and I started a holiday tradition of collecting hats and gloves and handing them out to the homeless in our area. With winter fast approaching, area homeless shelters will need your support more than ever. Contact the shelters to donate your winter clothing and other items they may need. Most shelters are always looking for volunteers. Look to your homeless shelters for volunteer opportunities. I listed addresses, phone numbers, and websites below. Please help and get involved.

Remember Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (Matthew 25:40)

Emergency Shelters Near Omaha, Ne:

OPEN DOOR MISSION   http://www.opendoormission.org/

2706 N 21 St E, Omaha NE . . . . . . . 402-422-1111

MICAH HOUSE   http://www.themicahhouse.org/

1415 Ave J, Council Bluffs IA. . . (712) 323-4416

SIENA/FRANCIS HOUSE   http://www.sienafrancis.org/

1702 Nicholas St, Omaha NE . . . . . . 402-342-1821

STEPHEN CENTER   http://www.stephencenter.org/

2723 Q St, Omaha NE . . . . . . . . . . . 402-731-0238

MOHMS Place Joshua House   http://www.mohmsplace.org/

1435 15 St. Council Bluffs IA. . (712) 322-7570

PHOENIX HOUSE

Victims of domestic abuse (confidential location)

Council Bluffs IA . . . . . . . . . . . (712) 328-0266

Toll-free . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (888) 612-0266

THE SHELTER

Victims of domestic abuse (confidential location)

Omaha NE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 402-558-5700

SAFE HAVEN

Victims of domestic abuse (confidential location)

Sarpy County NE . . . . . . . . . . 402- 292-5888

Toll-free . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1-800-523-3666

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