Portland, OR

What happens to the homeless on Christmas?

Rose Bak

It's tough celebrating the holiday while living on the streets.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

As you’re enjoying a delicious holiday meal with your family (in a COVID safe manner), you might wonder what the holidays would be like if you didn’t have a family and a home to enjoy for the holidays.

You might even worry about what’s going on with your houseless neighbors and how they are getting through the holidays.

As I often say, every day you are homeless is the worst day of our life. But being homeless on the holidays can be especially difficult.

The good thing about the holiday season is that there’s usually an outpouring of donations and support to help homeless services agencies such as shelters, drop-in centers, meal service programs (food kitchens), and outreach programs.

It’s heartwarming how much generosity we see directed at the homeless during the holidays. It’s also a marked departure from the rest of the year. We have a saying in the Homeless Services field:

“When it’s Christmas or a blizzard, suddenly everyone cares about the homeless.”

There’s something about the holidays – or a huge winter storm – that makes people open their hearts and show more compassion to those who are less fortunate.

Here’s what Christmas is like for a person experiencing homelessness in 2020.

Access to basic services is limited

For one thing, most businesses and service agencies are closed on the Christmas Day, and often on Christmas Eve as well.

People experiencing homelessness often meet their basic needs during business hours. They may rely on the library to keep warm or access the internet, use the restroom at Starbucks or the mall, they may take a shower or get a meal at a social services agency.

When those places are closed for the weekend or a snow day or a holiday like Christmas and Thanksgiving, people often end up with no place to go to take care of their basic needs.

Holiday meals are less plentiful – and less festive

In a good year, there might be a hot meal at a local church or a meal service program. Often that’s an opportunity to eat some more nutritious food, sit in a chair to eat, and warm up a bit with a cup of coffee or hot cocoa.

Sometimes these holiday events for the homeless will include little gifts like a warm pair of socks, a new hat or some handwarmers.

The mood is cheerful and happy unlike most days in a food line. These events can be a nice respite from the everyday grind of basic survival.

With the pandemic and COVID gathering restrictions, most programs can only offer a “to go” meal, something boxed up that a person experiencing homelessness will need to take to a park bench or a tent or some other outdoor space, where it may be wet or cold.

These holiday events are also generally run by volunteers. Volunteerism is down in most programs due to fear of COVID and pandemic isolation rules.

Shelter space is at a premium

One of the biggest myths in homelessness is that people are outside on purpose, they just refuse to go to a shelter. Even in the best of times, shelter bed capacity is much lower than the needs.

In my community of Portland Oregon, additional shelter beds open up in the winter months, but even that isn’t enough to provide a bed for every single person on the street.

This year we also have social distancing requirements. This means that shelter beds that used to be stacked up next to each other twelve inches apart now need to be single beds at least six feet apart. This has dramatically reduced the capacity of homeless shelters around the country.

There’s an economy of scale with shelters. Many of the fixed costs of rent, utilities, and minimal staffing levels are the same whether there’s 25 people in the shelter or 250 in the shelter. Simply put, there’s not enough money or space to replace one 250 bed shelter with ten 25-bed shelters. As a result, there are fewer beds for people to go in.

This means there are more people who will be outside this holiday.

Disconnection and sadness feel more acute

There are many factors that contribute to homelessness including: housing costs, loss of income, domestic violence, PTSD from serving in the military, mental illness, addiction, and negative foster care placements, to name a few.

But in the end, homelessness is about a loss of connection.

You become homeless when you are out of money and you have no more options where you can safely crash at someone else’s place. And just like all of us, Christmas can bring up negative emotions that are particularly acute during the holiday season.

People may be processing the grief of losing someone they love.

They may be mourning broken relationships with families.

They may be devastated by having their kids removed from their custody.

They may feel traumatized by the terrible things that have happened to them on the streets.

They may be scared because they’re having anxiety or an elevated mental health condition that is leading them to believe that they’re in danger or that people are against them.

These emotions can be particularly acute when people know that they’re sitting on the street in the cold while all around them, families are in their warm houses having delicious holiday meals and exchanging presents.

Everyone wants to have that Hallmark loving family Christmas, but that’s not in the cards for everyone. And just like the general population, Christmas may cause homeless populations to experience higher levels of anxiety, depression, and sadness. And just like the general population, the homeless may try to manage those symptoms with alcohol or drugs.

Remember that while single men might be the most visible homeless population you see, there are also many women, families with children, teenagers and elderly seniors living on the street. While they tend to be less visible, they are suffering just as much as the people you see every day.

How to help

If you want to help people this Christmas, here are a few things to consider:

  • Contact your local homeless organization or volunteer clearinghouse and offer to volunteer to help the homeless on Christmas weekend. With appropriate social distancing and masks, you can safely fill in some of the gaps to keep holiday events open for the homeless.
  • Make gift bags to give to the homeless and when you see someone on the street, hand them one. It’s great to include things like gloves, socks, hand warmers, a bottle of water, and snacks (granola bars, tuna and cracker kits, nuts, jerky).
  • Make a cash or in-kind donation to an agency serving the homeless.
  • If you see someone who is homeless, hand them some money. Even $5 will make a big difference. Give it without strings and count on the person to use it for whatever will ease their misery the most – even if that means they spend it on a can of beer and a cigarette.
  • Be kind. Acknowledge people. Say hello. Don’t just ignore them.

Remember, as the saying goes,

“There but for the grace of God, go I”.


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Rose Bak is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. She writes on a variety of topics including local news, homelessness, poverty, relationships, yoga, and aging. She is also a published author of romantic fiction. For more of Rose's work, visit her website at rosebakenterprises.com or follow her on social media @AuthorRoseBak.

Portland, OR

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