Winter woes for the most vulnerable

How extreme cold, inflation and spiralling costs are affecting American life.

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[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]
[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]

This is the second in a three-part series on staying warm this winter. Read part one here: How to beat rising household energy costs

June sits on the steps of New York City’s Penn Station, bundled tightly against the cold.

The 74-year-old retired infant nurse from Trinidad, who prefers that her last name not be used, wears a red sweatshirt with the hood up, a puffy black jacket and a colourful knit scarf wound around her neck - all clothes she got from free clothing drives.

She rouses herself to accept a cup of warm baked ziti from two outreach volunteers, her eyes shielded by a pair of dark sunglasses due to her recent treatment for cataracts.

Inside the Manhattan train station - a huge structure through which about 600,000 commuters move every day - people rush in all directions, the scene almost reminiscent of a fast-moving film with the frames sped up.

But among the commuters are people like June - those not moving but instead looking for a warm spot to sit and shelter from the city’s razor-sharp wind that could almost knock one’s breath out.

The particular set of steps where June sits near the New Jersey train is her usual spot. She sits up to eat the pasta with a plastic spoon, keeping her shades on while passengers bustle past.

Behind her, another unhoused woman - whom June describes as a friend, though she laughs upon realising she does not know her name - also has scarves and layers wrapped around every inch of skin, including her face. She snoozes, sandwiched between a rolling suitcase and the marble wall.

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“It’s tough” to sleep in Penn Station, June says. “Especially with the police. The police harass. Yes, they’re harassing the homeless.”

Just around the corner from June, an officer from the New York Police Department (NYPD) tells a young man he cannot sleep on the steps.

It is very cold. Outside, dry snow is falling. Tonight is a “code blue” night when the city activates an emergency notice for below-freezing temperatures, which simplifies the shelter intake process and is meant to ramp up outreach efforts.

In 2021, 16 homeless people died due to cold in New York City. At least one shelter has expressed concerns over how quickly their centres are filling on cold nights in light of rising homelessness rates in the city, which are at their highest since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, a not-for-profit advocacy group, there were 67,150 homeless people, including 21,089 children, sleeping each night in the city’s main municipal shelter system in November last year.

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June immigrated to New York in the 1980s. Once, she had a one-bedroom apartment 25km (15 miles) north in Yonkers, just past the Bronx. It was nice, she says. It had a tub.

She worked as a home care aide for newborns, taking care of one-week-old infants - so small, she refers to them as “rabbits”, before unrolling her bubbly laugh. She is a generous listener, quick to laugh at bad jokes, filling pauses with thoughtful hums and adding addendums to staccato sentences in a faint lilt both Caribbean and British.

When June was 60, she lost her apartment. She is not clear about why. But without an address, she could not work. She bounced around from hotel to hotel until, she says, “I ended up here”, on the steps of Penn Station on a January night.

Nearly 15 years later, the infants she once nursed have grown up and become teenagers.

Penn Station is relatively warm, although its stone floors let the cold seep in through clothes. In addition to her several layers, June sits on a piece of a ripped cardboard box for insulation.

She says her main problem is the police, who wake her up at night and force her to move, in the cold, on her bad legs. She has been arrested three times for sleeping in Penn Station although, she says: “They can’t lock up people for sleeping.”

The New York City Transit Authority forbids “sleeping where hazardous”. Mayor Eric Adams last year announced a zero-tolerance policy for sleeping in trains and stations.

“No more just doing what you want,” he said at a February news conference.

There are more than 580,000 known homeless people across the United States and New York has about 71,000, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report 2022 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

June used to go to other places during the day to keep warm, like a library, soup kitchen or train. But now her legs hurt too much for her to make those walks. They are bandaged underneath her layers of clothes, and she wears black velcro sneakers from a local hospital.

Without an income and with reduced mobility, June relies on a patchwork of aid groups, like the one who brought pasta, to provide hot meals. She does still make the walk to the Catholic Church of St John the Baptist, a block away.

Now, asked if there is anything else she would want available during the cold, June says she would suggest more drop-in centres.

Jacquelyn Simone, the policy director for the Coalition to End Homelessness, says there is a lack of political will to end homelessness.

“The frustrating thing in New York City is that we know what it would take to end homelessness,” she says, mentioning things like housing subsidies for those who are eligible. “But there's all this bureaucratic red tape that makes it very hard for people.”

The Coalition to End Homelessness operates throughout New York City as a mobile soup kitchen with various stops. It can sometimes feed up to 400 people - not all homeless - at a stop.

“The people that we serve are a combination of unsheltered people as well as people who are in housing and are severely rent burdened and need to supplement their food because they don't have the budget left over for meals,” Jacquelyn says.

“And also some people who are in shelters but don't like the food in the shelters as well.”

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Making money last

Across the country, Jackie, Renee, Ashley and Jane are mothers who live in the same suburban neighbourhood in Denver, Colorado. They are finding life expensive and struggle to keep up with their daily needs in the winter. Some have even taken on a third job to manage household needs.

The women, who asked that their last names not be used, are no strangers to the cold weather, but the cost of food, utilities and basic survival - the highest it has been in almost 40 years - is making it more difficult to manage.

The sharp increase in natural gas and electricity costs since 2020 has affected people around the country. Gas prices have increased by 52 percent since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

Sanctions imposed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have pushed prices up even further.

Electricity costs have also risen, although at a much lower rate – 22 percent since 2020.

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According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of food is 10 percent more than it was in 2021 and fuel has increased by more than 40 percent.

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Jackie says they are buying less and the children do small jobs around the area, like babysitting, walking dogs and shovelling snow from driveways to make money for themselves.

“We limit trips or going anywhere extra to avoid gas expenses,” Renee says. “I’m getting clothes from garage sales and thrift stores to make money last.”

“We’re selling extra things that we don’t need anymore: kids' old clothes and toys, extra electronics,” Ashley says, adding that eating out is not an option and they now pack lunches from home to help manage their budget.

They all try to spend more time in the public library or any other public space so they can stay warm and avoid using heating at home.

Cutting hair at home, splitting internet costs between neighbours and picking up good items on free listings and selling them at higher prices have helped this family and community make ends meet.

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A survey by the Pew Research Centre reveals that more than 50 percent of low-income parents say they have not had enough money for food or to pay their rent or mortgages.

By comparison, 17 percent of middle-income parents say the same about each of these items, while 5 percent of upper-income parents say they have struggled to pay for food and 4 percent for rent or a mortgage.

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A heavy burden

Ali, who asked that his real name not be used, is a 47-year-old first-generation immigrant from Pakistan living in Trenton, New Jersey.

He works for a pharmaceutical company in a senior position in its IT department.

Ali immigrated to the US with his parents and sister on the Green Card lottery system in 1996 when he was 25.

Settling into his life in New Jersey was a long journey. The whole family worked, and Ali started out with odd jobs.

Twenty-some years later, he is living his American dream, having bought a house and cars, gotten married and had children. He is also taking care of his retired parents, who live with him.

Ali laughs and remembers that when he first moved to New Jersey, filling up his car cost barely $18 a week. Now, in a similar-sized car, it is more than $80.

“Basic grocery items, on a quick shopping trip, will cost me $200, and it always surprises me because $200 is a lot of money for such a few items,” he says.

He acknowledges his privilege of having a good job, but the struggle for survival is always with him. Ali feels that despite everything he has, the burgeoning cost of utilities in the winter, warm clothes and health care for the entire family all add up and lays a heavy burden on him.

“I have friends who’ve had to go to family or friends’ houses nearby to survive the cold,” he says. “Some are chopping down trees and bushes in their own backyard to use the wood as a fire to stay warm.

I have no savings. I’m literally running paycheck to paycheck. You earn, you spend - and the cycle continues.”

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‘Failed by the system’

Dr Ammara Khalid is a clinical psychologist who has been practising in Chicago for more than a decade. For her patients, a brutal winter with polar vortexes and wind chills well below freezing is part of the Chicago experience.

Winter has always been challenging and Ammara sees many patients suffering from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, due to shorter days and lack of sunlight. But this winter, people are also dealing with higher utility bills, which are affecting their mental health as well as their ability to meet their basic needs.

‘’Dual-income households struggling to make ends meet with the majority of women having to leave the workforce to tend to childcare, and when you have furnaces falling apart, ice and water damage from pipes freezing, roof damage from heavy snow or the increased risk of car accidents because of poor weather conditions, the numbers add up quickly, and people are forced to make difficult decisions to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table,” Ammara says.

Some of her patients have had to move back in with their parents or relocate outside the city or to a different state due to the high costs of living in the city.

“Some of our low-income clients have been waiting for government grants and services and the process was draconian to begin with, but now it just seems like a never-ending waiting game,” she says.

“People have lost their hopes and dreams, their faith in the system, their homes, their jobs and their aspirations, and are also challenging the capitalist work-as-hard-as-you-can grind of the American system in the face of these issues,” Ammara says.

“People are fed up and have been failed by the systems that swore to protect them. There is a lot of anger and anguish, and I myself feel limited in what I can do to offer help and assistance.”

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Additional reporting by Delaney Nolan in New York City.

Source: Al Jazeera