It sometimes takes a bit of time for the gravity of your true emotions to hit you, as you realize that something you have experienced is, in fact, not OK. While talking to a group about the fifth annual Taste of Operation Warm Heart, a fundraiser for the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless’s emergency winter sheltering program, I was able to talk about the perils of living on the streets during below freezing temperatures.
I gave the numbers to the group to help better inform their decision and their donation dollars – almost 9,000 individuals – men, women and children – were found to be homeless in the state of NJ as of January 2019. The Coalition helps up to 14 adults on any given night through their Operation Warm Heart program and as many as 100 or more throughout the winter season, helping to shelter adults from the beginning of December until the end of March. Temperatures reached as low as 24 degrees last year, driving the need for indoor shelter for these people.
The conversation continued with a Q&A, which led us to a more personal discussion, past the numbers. I shared the story of the one time when I was at work in January, when we were ravaged by snow storm after snow storm. The streets of Elizabeth were buttressed with snow banks and paved in ice. The Operation Warm Heart program was filled to capacity every night, with more needing shelter but no beds to spare. Browsing through Facebook, I caught snippets of news articles here and there. Another school closure. The worst snow storm yet is on its way. All sorts of yellow journalism and clickbait articles filtering through my feed due to the algorithms I fed into by clicking on Buzzfeed articles as well as NPR stories.
Then I came across the article announcing a deceased man found in Elizabeth. He froze to death, homeless, probably alone and afraid, right next to the bus stop. He was dead for a few hours before anyone realized he had actually died and wasn’t passed out from alcohol or drugs. Fear gripped me at that moment. Is this someone I know? Is this someone I could have helped?
While I conveyed this to the group and stressed the fact that this happened only 20 minutes away from where we sat, I felt tears start welling up. My voice cracked, forcing me to pause and regain my composure. I glossed over the memory so as not to cry in front of the fifteen people I was beseeching donations from. Yet, even as I sit here writing, I remember the vivid details.
I not only was afraid, I was almost desperate. I scoured the internet, using every skill I learned from my journalism degree to find a name or a picture, but came up empty. I texted my friend who happens to be a police officer, asking him for details but came up dry. I even contemplated going to the police department, explaining that I run a chapter of a homeless program and just had to know if I could even just help identify the man and bring his soul, his family and his friends to peace knowing he was not forgotten.
I finally found out that no, I did not know the man. That yes, he was homeless, and did die there on the streets due to the cold weather. I never did find out his name. When the nonprofit community held its homeless vigil to remember those who passed away while living on the streets, I said a silent prayer for him.
It wasn’t until I almost ended up crying in front of a group of people years later that I realized how suppressed that memory became, and how wrong it was that the gentleman died from something as preventable as the cold. Something that I take for granted, as I sit in my warm house, sleep in my warm bed and forget about the frigid temperatures outside.
As the conversation moved on, I told the story of another man from my first year of running my chapter of the program - a gentleman with a shocking red mane, a bulbous nose blushed red with cold and shining green eyes like pieces of jasper. When he spoke, he stumbled and slurred his words slightly, a nod to the fact that he was slightly drunk but not belligerently so. As my boyfriend and I were leaving the program for the night, another guest told us to look at this man’s foot, saying it looked disgusting.
It turned out that our guest had severe frostbite, his foot looking like a charred log fresh off the fire. Slight cracks oozed dribbles of blood. We had to call the EMTs to take the man away, afraid that he would end up losing a limb. He didn’t want to leave though. He kept insisting that he was fine, that he refused to go with the EMTs if we called them. Though my heart broke while I said it, I told him that he had to go because we could not keep him at my chapter with his foot the way it was. He grumbled, slightly cursing along the way as the two volunteers led him to the door towards the waiting ambulance. I later found out that the hospital was able to save his foot with a heavy round of antibiotics.
Had this man had sufficient housing and a warm place to stay, maybe that could have been avoided. Of course, I can never be sure. But I do know that at least, he would not have had to endure such severe frostbite.
Union County has over 400 people counted as being homeless in January 2019. Some live in shelters. Some are squatting in abandoned buildings. Others are staying in tents. And finally, some are resting their heads on concrete and pavement, without a place to go for the night. Long-term solutions are needed, and there is no easy solution past advocating for more affordable housing, better mental health services and treatment for addictions that have ballooned into an epidemic. But until then, we need to make sure we support the nonprofits who find these people, welcome them in with open arms and no judgment. The nonprofits that seek to help everyone gain shelter so that we do not have another preventable death.
Almost all shelters in the state are run by nonprofits. They need our support throughout the year. I urge everyone to donate what they can – time, energy, a voice, and of course, funding – so that they can continue their life-saving work of helping our brothers and sisters with nowhere else to go.
Catherine Felegi is an advocate and self-described “way too passionate volunteer” for the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, working tirelessly with the nonprofit to help those facing homelessness and the working poor in the Union County area. She sits on the Board of Trustees and helps run fundraisers to support the Coalition’s mission to give people the tools and support they need to live healthy, self-sufficient lives.