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The Challenge Of Keeping Unhoused People Safe And Warm This Winter


And I'm Ailsa Chang in Los Angeles, where it's a pretty typical winter day weatherwise. But in much of the country, a huge swath down the middle of the U.S., that is not the case. States from the Canadian border all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico have been enduring record-breaking cold temperatures in recent days. And people experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable during snaps like this, like people in Minneapolis, where temperatures have dropped into the negative teens. Yusra Murad is a shelter worker whose family founded Zakat, Aid and Charity Assisting Humanity. It's an organization that places individuals in households experiencing homelessness into hotels. She joins us now from Minneapolis.


YUSRA MURAD: Hi, nice to talk with you.

CHANG: Nice to have you on our show. Can you just start by telling us a little more about how cold it is in Minneapolis right now? Like, if you are someone who does not have access to stable housing, what does that feel like right now?

MURAD: These are historically low, life-threatening temperatures in Minneapolis right now, even for those of us who have lived here all of our lives. This is the sort of weather that really endangers not just people who are unhoused but tenants and homeowners who live in poorly maintained units with the fear of their heat turning off or their pipes bursting. And for anyone without access to stable housing, whether that means that they're living outside or living in shelters with curfews or just couch surfing, every night is an immediate risk.

CHANG: Well, what options do people have when it comes to staying safe and warm in Minneapolis, especially right now, when shelters are decreasing capacity because of COVID?

MURAD: Very few - and part of that is because of the pandemic but also because in Minnesota, we don't really have a homelessness response apparatus that's to the scale of the crisis like you might have in Los Angeles or in New York City. Because of COVID, the warm spaces that generally are open to people who are unhoused such as libraries and public restrooms and transit stations - those are all shut down. So about a month ago, Hennepin County shared that the cold weather protocol, which would open transit stations overnight, wouldn't be activated until the temperature reached negative 25 with windchill, which is obviously well below the point at which a person can freeze to death.

CHANG: So at this point, are you saying that there are no fail-safes for temperatures this dangerously low - no fail-safes that are available for people who are without homes right now?

MURAD: Yeah, I mean, there are shelters that have opened their arctic overflow. There are a few nonprofit organizations that have opened 24/7 spaces for a few people. But for single adults, especially for single males on any given night, there are generally four to five beds at the time at which you call. And that's assuming that you have a cellphone.

CHANG: I'm wondering, is there a client you can tell us about whom your organization has helped during this brutally cold year while this pandemic is still going on?

MURAD: Yeah, so we have been working with people who are unhoused, moving them into hotel rooms since June. And since that time, we've paid for about 9,000 nights in hotels. In the last couple of months, the work has become increasingly challenging because now the checkout date will always be at a time that's colder than the check-in date. But we work with a lot of mothers, and I think that's a group that often is kind of left out of conversations around addressing homelessness in Minnesota. In this COVID environment, with kids doing distance learning, having children try to call in to school via Zoom from a shelter is tough on any kid. And it...

CHANG: Yeah.

MURAD: ...Feels like it's really not a big deal. But that, like, self-esteem component, the idea that everybody in the class might know that the child is living in a shelter or even in a hotel can be really distressing. So we work with a lot...

CHANG: Right.

MURAD: ...Of moms that are really just trying to bring a sense of normalcy to their lives and their kids' lives at a time when everybody housed, unhoused, is dealing with a lot of grief and collective trauma.

CHANG: Yusra Murad is a shelter worker in Minneapolis whose family founded ZACAH.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

MURAD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.