Photo of tent in winter snow

How to Support People Experiencing Homelessness During the Cold Winter Months

Nov 28, 2023

As the holiday season approaches and fall quickly transforms to winter, it can be easy to take for granted having a warm place to rest our heads every night. In 2022, a total of 7,917 people were recorded in Minnesota as experiencing homelessness, and more than 22 percent of these individuals were reported as unsheltered. This puts Minnesota 25th in the nation for unsheltered populations, which is especially concerning when considering the extreme temperatures our state faces each winter.

Homelessness impacts every age, gender, race, ethnicity, faith, and family structure. It affects single adults, families, mothers with children, youth, and the elderly. It even impacts people with jobs who simply can’t afford housing, or who find the barriers to securing housing to be complicated and insurmountable. 

Robbin Lofton is our program manager for the Housing and Homelessness team and has been working with Guild Services for more than 12 years. Here, she details some common misconceptions about homelessness, how Minnesotans experiencing homelessness are further affected during the winter months, and how we can all help support our unhoused neighbors.

What are some common misconceptions about homelessness? 

When someone is experiencing homelessness, they are extremely vulnerable and at high risk of being taken advantage of. They are often the victims of brutal and violent attacks, robbery, and other crimes, but research data often doesn’t capture this because many people do not report. 

Although people experiencing homelessness are far more likely to be the victim of crime, they are more commonly portrayed as the perpetrators. And when someone experiencing homelessness does commit a crime, news coverage is often heavy in response, which makes people become fearful of people living in their communities who are unhoused.

People experiencing homelessness are often judged by others, many of whom assume they just made bad choices that put them in the position they’re in. However, each person’s experience is far more complicated than that, and there are many variables that lead a person to homelessness. 

Our clients aren’t bad people. They want safety and security. They just need a little help to become self-sufficient. Oftentimes, they have no one to lean on and don’t know how to access services, or they’re completely unaware of the services available to them.

How does the winter season affect our state’s unhoused population?

When winter hits, it’s dangerous to be outside, so a lot of people experiencing homelessness become willing to accept any type of shelter they can get. Many people find a warm place in the woods and remain there throughout the winter months to stay safe. 

You might hear people complain, “Why won’t they just go to the shelter?” Unfortunately, many of our clients have experienced trauma while staying in shelters and other similar places, and they’ve told us they feel safest outside. To provide truly person-centered services, we have to listen and understand that this is their experience, and although it’s hard for us sometimes, we support them and ensure they have the tools they need to be safe outdoors, including tents, blankets, food, coats, hand warmers, socks, backpacks, etc.

What can Minnesotans do to help support their unhoused neighbors?

The biggest thing they can help with is understanding. Suspend judgment. Simply ask the person how they are doing and how you can assist. First impressions are lasting impressions — treat people who are experiencing homelessness as human beings first. Talk about their needs, such as what the person could use, on an individualized basis. 

Our clients often need clothing, backpacks, blankets, sanitary wipes, and food that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Gift cards for gas stations or grocery stores and bus cards for Metro Transit are hugely helpful. It’s also extremely helpful to let people know where they can go during business hours and stay for an extended amount of time. For example, Hennepin County has a list of severe cold warming locations that include public libraries and county buildings.

What do you wish more people understood about homelessness in Minnesota?

I wish more people understood how common it is and how close so many people are to becoming homeless. I wish people understood that it’s not about personal failure — rather, it’s about a failure of systems. 

I especially want people to understand that our neighbors experiencing homelessness are people, not criminals. People experiencing homelessness have the same hopes and fears as everyone else and deserve the dignity and safety of a home.

At Guild, we work every day to find and connect with people experiencing homelessness to deliver goods, resources, and ongoing support tailored to their specific needs. To do this, we rely on a robust network of partners in all areas of the Twin Cities metro area to quickly connect people to the services they need, wherever they are. To support this work, and to support our unhoused neighbors, consider making a gift to Guild today.