January 11, 2019

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Inadequate heating can cause hardships for the poor and elderly

David Bethuram

I’m from central Indiana. So, I don’t consider myself an expert on cold weather like those of you from Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota—or even South Bend!

I do know the weather in Indiana can be unpredictable. In my younger life, I remember witnessing dangerous ice storms, the blizzard of 1978, and times when temperatures dropped below a brisk nine degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill that made it feel like 10 degrees below zero. January is historically the coldest month when the average temperature overnight is 18.5 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the real teeth‑chattering arrives mid-February this year.

Growing up, in the winter months, my mother would say at least once a week how fortunate our family was to have heating. At the time, the comment struck me as more curious than poignant, but in my adult life, her words resonant whenever I walk outside on a particularly frosty day. For those living in poverty without adequate shelter or heating, cold weather has severe and devastating consequences.

When it is cold at home, most of us will turn up the thermostat, perhaps with a little reluctance and grumbling, perhaps without a thought. We might throw an extra blanket on the kids’ beds and make sure they have warm socks or slippers. We might even put on a jacket. For the poor, getting warm at home can often mean something very different.

For the homeless, sleeping outside in frigid temperatures is life threatening, and heated shelters are struggling in many cities to provide enough beds for those in need. I know of communities who have opened warming centers for those who need a place to stay out of the bitterly cold nights. St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Bedford worked with other churches and civic organizations in its community to open a warming center four years ago after a homeless man died during a very frigid cold spell. All archdiocesan Catholic Charities agencies work with other community leaders to support and/or provide emergency shelter during cold temperatures.

Older people also experience extreme hardship during the colder months. Individuals unable to leave their apartments due to weather conditions become isolated for extended stretches of time. For elderly adults without familial support, who are unable to afford care services, this can be life threatening. Older adults are also more susceptible to hypothermia, which can be deadly if not treated quickly, according to the National Institute of Health. Furthermore, families with children living below the poverty line in cold climates have a difficult time meeting the high cost of heating bills, and as a result, are forced to live in inadequately heated households, risking illness and other challenges.

Think about cold weather as creating a kind of environmental classism. For low‑income people, energy costs are rising at a higher and faster rate than overall household incomes. The increased cost of heating, combined with the health and safety consequences of cold weather, has significant and potentially deadly consequences for those unable to access appropriate shelter. In many cases, they can create a downward economic spiral where the inability to afford proper heating leads to higher health costs, which further hurts the ability to afford appropriate shelter and leads to worse health conditions and so on and so on.

As we begin anticipating much colder temperatures, take a moment to consider the luxury of heating, and consider ways to support those who do not have the benefit of a warm home. Please support the emergency programs of Catholic Charities in your area. I know I am.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. E-mail him at dbethuram@archindy.org.)

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