A van crawls through the streets of downtown Boston, pausing at the intricate iron entrance to a city landmark or a doorway carved in stone. By day, these openings are passages to power and wealth. At night, they are coveted shelters from wind, sleet or snow. People inside the van know this. Their carefully trained eyes scan the shadows of every building, stairway or bench, watching for hints of life.
On Winter Street, at the end of a brick alley, there’s a flicker of movement. The van pulls over and a figure in a light coat emerges.
“Is that you James?” asks a man with a reassuring, deep voice who has stepped out of the van. “You going in tonight?”
What Happens To The Body Of A Person Who Sleeps Outside In Extreme Cold?
Dr. Jim O’Connell, with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, explains:
When a person gets cold, their body shuts down blood going to the skin to preserve warmth near the heart. When hands and feet don’t have enough blood they may develop frostbite.
With frostbite, hands, feet, ears and noses can swell and blister. The skin turns black and necrotic. In cases of severe frostbite, dead tissue will fall off or autoamputate. Some patients are left with a disfigured toe or finger, some lose the tip or whole digit.
In the last two weeks in Boston, a homeless man who sleeps on the street lost one leg below the knee as well as part of the other foot to frostbite. Another man will need to have one of his legs amputated below the knee.
O’Connell explains the body’s reaction to cold in depth here.
Nelson Bennett knows James. He sees this young man often as Bennett circles downtown Boston in Pine Street Inn’s outreach van. It’s packed with blankets, hats, gloves, underwear, socks and sandwiches. Large insulated containers keep hot water handy for instant soup, oatmeal and hot chocolate.
“It always helps, especially in these conditions, to get some warm liquid into your body,” Bennett says.
Bennett and his crew are also out every night trying to persuade people who plan to sleep on the street to spend the night in a shelter instead.
Now, with the temperature at 15 degrees and dropping, Bennett wants to know, will James come in?
No, James says. His girlfriend was assaulted at one of the shelters and won’t go back, so he’s staying out with her. James stands next to a pile of ripped boxes from which he’s pulling pieces to build their bed. It will be three layers of cardboard pushed up against a glass office front with a short wall around the sides.
“I kind of go a little overboard,” James says, laughing. “I don’t want any of the rodents and whatnot getting in.”
James explains he collects new pieces of cardboard every night and throws them away in the morning.
“Once you get in this situation, it’s like impossible” to get a job and get back into housing, James explains. “I have my own issues up here,” he adds, tapping his head. “I’ve had a lot happen, but I don’t want to deal with it so…”