Awareness for homeless during winter being raised

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By Olivia LeDuc

As the winter months are fast approaching, with temperatures expected to drop to frigid levels, homeless advocates and university students are stepping up to raise awareness for the city’s homeless population.

The Somerville Housing Coalition (SHC), a local organization committed to providing support services to homeless individuals and families, is gearing itself with resources to meet its client’s needs during the icy season, including winter clothing items, food and toiletries.

“(Homeless people) are looking for somewhere to stay that’s warm and when the wind starts picking up, they have to find somewhere to go,” said Paul Murphy, SHC’s development and communications coordinator. “We are making sure everyone stays safe and warm.”

Among other steps SHC has taken to combat the cold and unfamiliarity of the city’s homeless population is a collaboration with Tufts University students for its Sleep Out event. The Sleep Out is an awareness campaign aimed at making residents and others more cognizant of the cold element for SHC’s clients who are sleeping outside.

The event, on Friday, November 17, is running in partnership with Jumbos for Nonprofits, a Tufts student-run advisory board that works with non-profits in the surrounding area. SHC staff, Tufts students and other participants will be sleeping outside through the night to experience the vulnerability of homeless people during winter.

“Now that it is getting colder, homelessness is a more difficult thing to experience,” said Rebecca Altholz, the student group’s vice president and a sophomore at Tufts University.

The Sleep Out event started in Arlington in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, but as clients’ needs shifted, Murphy said SHC switched the event to during the fall.

Homelessness has been on the rise in Somerville. During a City Council meeting in late August, councilors called on the mayor to declare a state of emergency. An accurate number of homeless individuals is unavailable, the City Council said during its Aug. 24 meeting, but they approved an order to produce data on these rates.

Altholz said Jumbos for Nonprofits has noticed a large increase in homeless people around the Tufts community living on the streets since 2020. As a result, the student group decided that their focus for this semester, or “impact area,” would be homelessness and housing insecurity.

Jumbos for Nonprofits started connecting with SHC for the Sleep Out to give Tufts students and other participants a real experience of what homelessness feels like during the winter.

“Having a sleep out during a cold month in November can show students how painful and emotionally difficult it can be to live in the cold,” Altholz said. “Many students never had to think about the possibility of homelessness.”

Murphy said SHC’s work with Jumbos for Nonprofits will create a meaningful impact for students of different backgrounds to learn more about homelessness.

“(The Sleep Out) is a great opportunity for us to connect with the next generation and highlight the importance of homelessness and ways to help those who are homeless,” he said.

The winter season brings a unique set of challenges to SHC’s team, Murphy said. Many of SHC’s clients, as opposed to the summer months, tend to relocate further from the organization’s site in search of warmer shelter, making it difficult for the outreach staff to inform them of support and services.

Despite the challenges, Murphy said SHC is working to prepare for the upcoming months. SHC staff has begun distributing winter clothing items, including hats, gloves and coats, food and other necessities.

The organization’s Civic Engagement Center will continue to provide access to these essential resources, in addition to a warming center for clients to stay warm. SHC has 16 beds for individuals, and this number will remain throughout the season.

“The gap when it is cold out … we are locating and getting those resources to our clients,” Murphy said. “Our team tries to make sure our clients are (aware of support) so there is no neglection there.”

Murphy said that if anyone sees someone homeless or needs help during the wintry months, notify SHC.

Anyone interested in donating winter needs to SHC for their clients can make it on the organization’s website: https://somervillehomelesscoalition.org/giving/

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