Avoiding Cold Injuries this Winter

Dr. Kevin Sullivan meets with a patient on a snowy day.

Winter in New England poses many challenges to us all, but as you might imagine, cold weather is a particularly intense threat for our patients here at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. As the nights grow longer and the temperature drops, our patients are especially at risk. So what are we doing to prepare our patients and what can you do to help?

What BHCHP is doing to prepare our patients

As Dr. Kevin Sullivan, a member of our Street Team, shared, “Frostbite and hypothermia are always a risk.” Our staff is trying to reduce that danger by talking to patients about the hazards as well as where they’re going to be during cold weather.

Most shelters in the Boston area are typically closed during the day, but when particularly bad weather hits, like a storm or dangerously low temperatures, many will stay open. Some shelters will also be increasing their capacity, in an effort to offer everyone who wants one a bed in from the cold. Boston shelters always rise to the occasion, coordinating to make sure anyone who can be convinced to come in has a warm place to sleep and food. BHCHP clinical staff remain on-site in our shelter clinics during cold bouts and storms to help manage medical issues as they arise.

The Boston Night Center, an overnight drop-in center where people are allowed to sleep, is another possibility. BHCHP helped to reopen the Night Center in 2015, which is now run by Bay Cove Human Services and includes a clinic that we staff once a week. This is a particularly appealing option for some because couples can stay together. It’s also low threshold, meaning it has a low barrier to entry. The Night Center also has the latest possible entry time in Boston, so it remains an option when other locations are full or closed for the night.

The City of Boston will have a number of measures in place beyond their usual services, such as an EMS vehicle which will focus on high frequency areas for those living on the streets, such as Copley Square and Mass-Cass, the intersection of Massachusetts Ave and Melnea Cass Boulevard. The SUV will do safety checks and carry naloxone (also known by the brand name Narcan) to reverse overdoses.

Outreach teams from Pine Street Inn, the Boston Public Health Commission, BHCHP, and other programs work together during inclement weather to increase and coordinate outreach services in order to improve the chances of bringing people inside.

The City’s Annual Homeless Census will take place on January 31. For one night, volunteers count every single individual experiencing homelessness, wherever they are in the city. Teams of BHCHP staff regularly volunteer to help in this effort, which informs policy conversations, federal funding, and the allocation of services from the City and others.

What can you do to help?

Dr. Jim O'Connell meets with a patient.

Learn the signs

In extreme cold, frostbite can happen in under a minute, and wind increases the risk. Signs of frostbite include loss of feeling and white or pale appearance in extremities such as fingers, toes, ear lobes, and the tip of the nose. Signs of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness and apparent exhaustion.

We tell patients that it’s critical to keep heads covered and dry with hats, since we lose the most heat from our heads. We also make sure people have hands and feet well covered with warm, waterproof gloves and boots. Warm drinks – tea, coffee, hot chocolate, soups – are good to offer. 

See something, say something

The MBTA’s See Say app, based on the popular “See Something, Say Something” slogan, has a safety check feature. That way if you see someone who looks like they may be in need of assistance but you’re unable to help yourself, you can enter it on the app and the city’s EMS vehicle will check in with the person. Of course if you see an emergency, please dial 911.

Suggest a warm location

In addition to the Night Center and the various overnight shelters throughout the city, warming centers are made available whenever the Mayor declares a winter weather emergency. The number of open centers varies based on the need, so please call 311 for updates on which centers are open during emergencies.

Host a clothing drive

As mentioned above, it’s critical to keep heads, hnds and feet well covered and dry with hats, gloves, and boots. At BHCHP, we are happy to receive donations of warm weather gear, which we then distribute to patients across our 40+ locations throughout the greater Boston area. Our patients are typically in need of new hats and gloves, new or very gently used coats, and winter boots in adult sizes for men & women. Learn more about the need and how to host your own drive on our website.

Donate gift cards

Gift cards allow our patients to go inside and buy a coffee or sandwich. Beyond the food and drink, this means they can stay out of the cold. We’ve found that $5 and $10 gift cards to places like Panera, McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts work best. Other information about our ongoing needs can be found on our website.

Attend the Winter Walk

Finally, the Winter Walk, an annual event that brings together participants, housed and unhoused, to walk shoulder to shoulder and then share a meal together and hear real stories of Boston’s homeless population. The 2-mile walk will take place on Sunday, February 11, 2018 at Copley Square Plaza. The Winter Walk is a campaign raising awareness and funds to help end homelessness in Boston. The funds raised benefit five partner organizations, including BHCHP. Register to join us at the Winter Walk!

Make a donation

BHCHP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and donors make it possible for us to provide lifesaving health care to Boston's homeless populations. Now, more than ever, the individuals and families facing homelessness are counting on your support. Every gift makes an impact.

Staying healthy and warm during the icy winter months can be difficult for our patients, but with the help of our staff and supporters, we can make the winter a much safer time for those who are most at risk.

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