La Niña, a weather phenomenon in which the eastern Pacific Ocean experiences cooler than usual temperatures, creates something of an opposite effect to its cousin, El Niño. Instead of warming the Pacific Northwest, it promises colder winter temperatures and wetter weather overall. We are, for only the third time in recorded meteorological history, in the throes of a three-year-long La Niña pattern, per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
For most people in the region, that means extra layers on your morning commute or maybe higher energy bills to heat the house. For people living unsheltered, in tents or in vehicles, the cold can be a killer.
Seven hundred people experiencing homelessness die a year from hypothermia, according to a 2010 report from the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council (NHCHC) titled “Winter Homeless Services: Bringing Our Neighbors in from the Cold.” Locally, the most recent data on deaths of presumed homeless people from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office (MEO) show nine cases of death by hypothermia or exposure so far this year. The majority of those deaths fell in January and February, but the last death occurred in early March when the overnight lows were well above freezing. Those numbers also don’t represent the totality of people experiencing homelessness in the county — just a particularly vulnerable subset.
While hypothermia is most prevalent during extreme cold, it can occur with temperatures as high as 50 degrees, given the right conditions. Los Angeles consistently records more deaths by hypothermia among its unhoused population than New York City. This might have something to do with New York City being a “right to shelter” city — Los Angeles has no such mandate — which hammers home the fact that being outside is the biggest risk factor for hypothermia.
At a cold weather clothing drive on Nov. 13 organized by the U Heights community center, Jennifer Adams, a formerly unhoused woman who is now a staff lead for the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness’ (ITFH) vehicle residency program, recalled the constant struggle to stay warm and, equally as important, dry.
She has spent time sleeping rough but lived primarily in a van. Using a heater, she said, allowed her to “be warmer, but then you have to have ventilation to combat the moisture. I had to have ceilings you would throw away, blankets [you would throw away] because it would get moisture and mold issues. You’d have to keep the condensation down.”
Robert, a currently unhoused man who stopped at Adams’ table for socks and handwarmers, said he had both a vehicle and a tent but slept most often in the tent because it was warmer. He finds the layered tarps he uses to trap in heat exacerbate the condensation issue.
“It helps holding the warmth there next to you and around you, but it doesn’t help with condensation as it makes more layers for it to [condensate in],” he said. The region’s wet winters are especially difficult, he added, because it is almost impossible not to bring water in the tent with you.
“Even in your tent, when everything gets ‘wet’ wet, you have a harder time heating it to dry it in there,” he said. “Once you get it [dry], you need to do everything to keep it dry. Use your umbrella; use your poncho; don’t bring it in with you.”
He shoots for a “happy medium” of 50 to 60 degrees, which is warm enough to survive in but not so warm that it makes the tent overly humid.
While waking up to a bit of dew might not sound like the end of the world to anyone who’s been backpacking, condensation and wetness can play a major part in cold-related deaths or injuries.
Wet clothing causes the body to lose heat 20 times faster, according to “Accidental Hypothermia & Frostbite: Cold-Related Conditions,” a 2004 paper published by Boston-based Healthcare for the Homeless (HCH) workers.
Robert and Adams, as well as Adams’ table partner Garrett, another former vehicle resident who now works for ITFH, all emphasized the importance of proper ventilation to controlling moisture. Adams also used desiccant crystal packs like DampRid to dehumidify her space, but said that, while they work well, it was one more thing to worry about.
Beyond being constantly cold and wet, there are plenty of other risk factors for hypothermia that are especially prevalent among unhoused individuals.
The NHCHC report warned that “[m]any of the chronic problems faced by the homeless [population], including inadequate clothing, malnutrition and underlying infection, further increase the risk of developing and dying from hypothermia. In addition, many homeless people struggle with alcohol and drug addictions. The use of these substances substantially increases their susceptibility to hypothermia.”
There’s also the matter of stigma. Adams said the vehicle residents the organization works with report constant harassment, up to and including rocks thrown through their windows. That’s not exactly the type of ventilation she was talking about. Animosity to the unhoused also colors decisions around how to heat a vehicle or tent, she added.
When Adams was a vehicle resident, many parks still had electrical outlets that were powered on, but she was often afraid to use them for fear of outing herself.
“You could run an extension cord, but you’re so out loud if you have an extension cord,” she said.
The alternative is to use propane, which is quite the hot-button issue in Seattle. One of the chief complaints raised about encampments is that they generate an inordinate number of fires due to propane explosions. To be fair, propane heaters can be dangerous, as Adams well knows.
“One time I forgot to check my fittings, and so when I turned it on, it was leaking and that caught on fire. It took me a minute to get out because [it was sitting in front of] my way out,” she said.
Whatever the relative merits of these methods of keeping warm, the undisputed best way to beat the cold is to get out of it. The NHCHC report surveyed shelters across the country about their cold weather policies, looking into how and when they activate extra shelter or emergency measures. It found that many operated on temperature cutoffs, which NHCHC cautioned can lull providers into a false sense of security about the potential for cold weather injury above those cutoffs. It concluded by recommending that “an exemplary winter shelter would be open 24 hours each day between October 1 and April 30, regardless of temperature, as well as any other days during the year when the temperature falls below 40° F. It would also admit all homeless people, regardless of sobriety status or past bans, unless they are violent or causing an extreme disturbance.”
The King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA), which took over Seattle’s severe weather homelessness response at the start of the year, operates on a three-tier system. Notably, Seattle is the only city in the county in which it can activate additional shelter.
The first tier is activated when daily high temperatures are predicted to be below 45 degrees Fahrenheit for three consecutive days. That triggers increased outreach to area service providers and community groups. It also opens up emergency funds to those groups to give out cold weather gear.
The second tier triggers when daily high temperatures are predicted at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit or daily lows are at or below 35 degrees Fahrenheit for three consecutive days. It can also trigger when snow or rain accumulation is greater than two inches three days in a row. This tier supplements existing measures with extra shelter space and extended hours, plus supplemental food delivery to shelters. During the last activation that included extra shelter, from Nov. 6 to 12, KCRHA provided an additional 215 beds between the Compass Housing Alliance’s Otto’s Place shelter, the Seattle Indian Center and a shelter in Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall. The Exhibition Hall shelter was open to anyone 18 or older and allowed pets.
Tier three is activated when the daily high temperature or the daily low temperature is predicted at or below 35 degrees Fahrenheit or 30 degrees Fahrenheit for a single day, respectively, or when snow or rain accumulation is greater than four inches. At this level, the response includes some more proactive measures: KCRHA works with cities across the county to open even more shelter and sends out snow-ready vehicles with food. It also offers storage for belongings to encourage people to come inside and transportation for those that decide to.
KCRHA’s cold weather flyers, which contain information about extra overnight shelter and places open to the public to get warm during the day, were ubiquitous at the U Heights event. KCRHA Director of Communications Anne Martens said the organization tries to push that information out to unhoused people where they’re at.
“We rely on outreach workers and service providers and provide them with flyers to hand out as they are making the rounds. We have a regular weekly meeting with outreach providers by geographic area and bring those groups together for special meetings if we expect to activate,” she said.
However, Tim and Sandra, a couple visiting the clothes drive from the nearby Tent City 3, said it isn’t always easy finding out where to access cold weather resources.
“No one’s coming out to tell [us]. Nobody knows. Nobody ever knows. They’re just, like, spur of the moment. This wasn’t advertised at all. Even in a tent city, it wasn’t advertised,” Tim said.
While there is a significant amount of extra shelter available for climate events in the region, the reality is many unhoused people won’t or can’t take advantage of it. Martens said that of the 60 extra beds made available at Otto’s Place from Nov. 6 to 12, only 35 or so were used.
That’s where informal mutual aid groups can make a huge difference. While a number of groups give out cold weather supplies — U Heights, Facing Homelessness, Youthcare and the Downtown Emergency Service Center, to name a few — this work doesn’t have to be done through a government-recognized organization. If you see someone suffering in the cold or have neighbors in tents or RVs, there’s a lot you can do.
For starters, hats are huge. People can lose up to 50 percent of their body heat from an uncovered head, per that same 2004 Boston HCH study. Socks are also vital, and, for people who have nowhere to dry off their damp socks, a new pair is often the only real solution. Gently used camping gear and tarps help a ton, but you might also consider giving out some DampRid to help fight condensation. Amazon even sells a number of cheap dehumidifier packs for tents.
Cardboard is also key, Adams said.
“You can’t lay on concrete; you’ll die. You’ll wake up dead,” she said.
So if you’re anticipating any large electronics purchases this holiday season, don’t stuff those boxes in the bin. In the spirit of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” give them to someone who needs a sleeping pad.
The bottom line is deaths and injuries due to the cold are inherently preventable. Even if we can’t get everyone inside, we have an abundance of technological solutions to hypothermia. We can prevent deaths and injuries due to cold. As Martens warned, we should be increasingly prepared to.
“As climate change heats up (pun intended) we’re going to see more and more extreme weather, and need to start thinking about it as a regular part of the landscape,” she said.
Read more of the Nov. 23-29, 2022 issue.