Government shutdown could exacerbate a dangerous winter for those in need
Tuesday, January 22, 2019
The need to remain warm in winter is so patently obvious that we almost forget about it as we put on extra layers, go outside early to prepare the car, and center plans around the warmest times of day.
Survival for many in winter is already hampered by freezing temperatures, snow, and ice. A number of additional obstacles, ranging from homelessness, poverty, and the government shutdown, undermine people’s basic efforts to stay warm and alive in a season not even halfway over yet.
The recent winter storm on the East Coast and in the Midwest has already caused between 6 and 9 reported deaths. As of Jan. 21, power outages in Pennsylvania and Connecticut had impacted over 34,000 people. Severe weather throttling power lines is widespread, and auto crashes, falling trees, and other accidents add to death tolls in extremely dangerous weather conditions.
Driving conditions in the Midwest were likened to an "apocalyptic natural disaster movie" by a St. Louis resident who reports that people were abandoning cars on roads as they could not overcome the incredible storm conditions.
First on our minds are people with contingent or no housing. Let’s consider one of the coldest states in the U.S.: Alaska. The state has some of highest rates of homelessness and alcoholism in the U.S. — a fact not lost on people during the excruciatingly cold winter months that can last from October to May.
In Anchorage, it was reported that in 2016, 3,000 to 4,000 people were homeless — and the city scrambled to find beds in a very high demand market. The combination of homelessness and alcoholism has bodies turning up in wintertime, and during warmer spring when the snow begins to melt — according to The Guardian.
The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness reports serving 2,997 clients, with 2,307 sheltered, between July and September 2018. The city was preparing for a mass homeless count on Jan. 22 to get an understanding of the city homeless population demographics.
Local shelters may be unable to provide beds for everyone. In Anchorage, some homeless residents prefer to camp outside along woodland trails that are public lands running through city neighborhoods. Homeless encampments are one common solution to winter shelter overflow, but many of these encampments are deemed illegal and routinely monitored if not broken down by city officials and police.
For those fortunate to have housing, there’s a federal program subsidizing winter heating bills.
Six million households are subsidized by the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). So far, LIHEAP subsidies are reportedly not affected by the shutdown. But that could change, depending on how long the shutdown lasts.
There are other housing agencies facing upcoming cuts or even paralysis caused by the shutdown. These cuts are likely to produce more homeless people, as landlords expect usually subsidized tenants to fully cover their rent expenses.
Rural housing for some of the poorest U.S. residents faces impending housing subsidy cuts: "If the government does not fully reopen by Feb. 1, nearly 270,000 rural families who receive federal rent subsidies through the USDA would also be at risk of eviction because their landlords would no longer be paid."
Rural populations have unique circumstances since providers of essential services are more difficult to access. The impact that these and other housing-related cuts will have is an ongoing concern for residents of our coldest states facing harsh winter conditions.
The combination of agency cuts, winter storms, poverty and homelessness has many on edge during these winter months.
We have yet to fully see how winter 2019, which boasts the longest federal government shutdown ever, will play out for the most vulnerable populations needing essential government services for long-term survival.
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