Decreasing Temperatures, Increasing Risk

When the temperatures begin to drop, most people mindlessly make the change to the colder season. From warmer clothes, to warmer drinks, a majority make small switches in their daily routines. However, this change isn’t possible for everyone. During the colder times of the year, the homeless struggle to stay warm, and stay alive. In an interview by Ari Shapiro of the National Public Radio (NPR) team, she meets with a homeless man named David Pirtle to discuss the difficulties he encounters on the streets. At one point, Shapiro asks Pirtle what it is like on the worst nights for him (National Public Radio 2012). Pirtle responds, admitting thatduring the coldest nights is just, you know, fear of not waking up in the morning. It’s fear of freezing to death” (National Public Radio 2012). Although, he then adds that one learns how to stuff their clothes with newspaper and develop an awareness of resources, such as hypothermia vans that drive around Washington D.C (National Public Radio 2012).

Figure 1: In cities, homeless people tend to migrate to air vents on the street in order to stay warm.

Those living on the streets find ways to make the area they inhabit their home. This idea of home, although it can be difficult for outsiders to understand, is often the reason the homeless decline opportunities of residence in shelters. Due to this preference, though, the homeless are susceptible to cold related illnesses, such as hypothermia. And that’s why the hypothermia van system was created.

Using the Washington D.C. Shelter Crisis hotline, a van is deployed to offer transportation to shelter, blankets (if shelter is refused), or medical help (Georgetown Ministry Center 2019). Service organizations rely heavily on pedestrians to contact van systems when encountering a homeless person that is displaying signs of hypothermia (Tillett 2004). 

Steps have also been taken to prevent police intervention on the homeless when the homeless take shelter in off-limit areas. For example, Simmons of the “Cold Hits Homeless Hard” essay discusses his work as one of Washington D.C.’s van drivers (Tillett 2004). Simmons establishes relationships with parking garage attendees in hope that they will contact hypothermia vans when homeless people are found in garages instead of the police (Tillett 2004).

Figure 2: Simmons on hypothermia patrol in his van.

The service of hypothermia vans may be relatively new and unheard of to most, but hopefully the information is spreading to the right people. Potential sponsors, volunteers, and those in need should all be well aware of the on-call vans. With an estimated 700 homeless killed a year due to hypothermia, the issue is pressing (National Public Radio 2012). Death from hypothermia can be easily prevented with the right resources, and it’s important the need for these resources is widely advertised.


National Public Radio

   2012     “Why Some Homeless Choose Streets Over Shelters, National Public Radio.  Electronic document,, accessed November 8, 2019.


Tillett, Scott L.

   2004    Cold Hits Homeless Hard, Street Sense Media. Electronic document,, accessed November 8, 2019.


Georgetown Ministry Center

  2019    Emergency Info & Hotlines, Georgetown Ministry Center. Electronic          document,, accessed November 8, 2019.


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2 thoughts on “Decreasing Temperatures, Increasing Risk

  1. Interesting post that resonates with me really strongly in this cold weather. What do you think Anthropologists can do to help address homelessness? Why would Anthropology be better positioned than other fields to help with this issue?

    • When faced with the issue of homelessness, there are plenty of ways that anthropologists can help address the root of the problem and help the individuals who are affected. In the article “Helping the Homeless through Anthropology,” Michele Taylor writes about Violet Fox, an archaeologist with a passion to “establish a safe, supportive environment in which the women could open up about their lives” (Taylor 2019). In Fox’s case, she found an “art night” to be most effective in providing “a creative way to connect with the women” that also involved something they enjoyed, because as she discovered, “they have talents and interests” and “they are desperate to find common ground with the larger community and contribute to it” (Taylor 2019). After reading the article about Fox’s work with the homeless, I have come to the conclusion that anthropologists can address homelessness by providing support groups, free-of-charge therapy and education, and opportunities for low-stress job interviews. Anthropologists are better positioned to help with this issue because they understand human emotions and understand how to preserve respect for everyone, no matter what. What anthropologists understand that Taylor claims most do not, is that “homeless folks are hard-working people actively engaged in changing their situation,” and they cannot simply “try harder” when they are unable to avoid many of the obstacles they face (Taylor 2019). Education on the homeless and their talents, ambitions, and efforts to improve their situation could also be provided by anthropologists.

      Taylor, Michele.
      2019. University of Oregon. Electronic document,, accessed December 15, 2019.

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