For people living outside in King County and the surrounding region, the winter months can be especially challenging, even if extreme weather like deep snowfall isn’t common.
Local government officials will implement immediate safety measures, like opening additional emergency shelters, when it snows or temperatures fall below freezing. But homeless people in general are vulnerable during the Puget Sound area’s cold winter months: They are eight times more likely to die of hypothermia than those with traditional homes, according to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
“It doesn’t have to be very cold for people to suffer from exposure,” said Rick Reynolds, executive director of Operation Nightwatch, which does nightly outreach to people living outside. “When you’re just standing for an hour, doing nothing outside, you start to realize how impactful the cold is.”
So what should you do when you see someone out in the cold, who you believe could be homeless? Here are a few ways to help.
1. Follow your instincts
It’s all right to ask someone if they are OK if your gut tells you they’re in distress. Before walking over, take a minute to consider how you would want the interaction to go if the roles were reversed. It’s important to not be confrontational and not make someone feel cornered, Reynolds said. Treat every interaction with caution.
Finding a sincere and simple way to say, “I see you and I’m concerned for your safety” goes a long way, he said. And if you feel inclined to offer clothing, hats and gloves can be especially helpful, Reynolds said.
Don’t be surprised if the answer to your offer of help is “No.” Reynolds has worked in street outreach for 25 years, and said he can probably count on one hand the number of times someone has accepted his offer to get into immediate shelter.
“It’s hard when somebody is already hunkered down, if they’ve got blankets and gear, to get them to move,” Reynolds said. “When you move them inside, they’ve got to pack everything up.”
Moving indoors can introduce an immense amount of uncertainty for some people, taking them away from their survival routines. There’s a host of factors contributing to a person’s decision-making when it comes to surviving outdoors, according to Reynolds.
On the other hand, when temperatures drop below freezing — which is when King County and the city of Seattle are required to open emergency weather shelters — many people who are living outside will find a way to get themselves indoors, said Daniel Malone, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC).
If you offer help to someone and they say “yes,” here are some next steps:
2. Save these numbers
The severity of the situation and the time of day will determine your next step.
No matter where you are in Washington, calling 211 will connect you to a dispatcher who has access to a database of basic-need direct services. Although the state runs the main 211 line, callers are then dispatched to regional centers that can provide information about nearby resources.
In King County, the 211 line is operated by Crisis Connections, a nonprofit that manages five other call lines, including the county’s crisis line.
Each morning, Crisis Connections’ team contacts every overnight emergency shelter in King County to update their database on which shelters have space. If someone needs access to food, shelter, clothing, diapers or other necessities, calling 211 should provide them with the right resources and availability to help.
Dispatchers can’t assist the caller with transportation. The team’s services are instead focused on providing information, said Lauren Rigert, director of development and community relations for Crisis Connections.
Also call 211 during inclement weather if you aren’t sure what additional resources might be available.
Here’s the caveat: King County’s 211 line operates only from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Outside of those hours, Crisis Connections recommends that people go to their website, crisisconnections.org, for a complete list of resources.
In times of crisis, especially if it’s the middle of the night, the next, more immediate option for assistance is calling your county’s crisis line.
King County’s crisis line is: 866-427-4747.
Pierce County’s crisis line is 800-576-7764.
Snohomish County’s crisis line is 800-584-3578.
The crisis lines, which operate 24/7, are designed to help people in physical, emotional and financial crisis and help divert a deluge of calls to 911, Rigert said. For families experiencing homelessness, they can call the King County Emergency Family Shelter line — 206-245-1026 — at any time to find family-friendly shelters with availability.
Crisis-line dispatchers are able to connect with the DESC Mobile Crisis Team, which is designed to help people experiencing a behavioral-health crisis. The team is made up of mental-health and substance-use disorder professionals who are available 24/7 to respond throughout King County.
On average, the DESC said, it takes about an hour for a team to reach a site. If you are concerned for someone’s safety, but it isn’t a matter of life or death, Malone said, call the crisis line and tell the operator, “It’s unclear whether this person is in a life-threatening situation; I was hoping the system could get the Mobile Crisis Team to see them.”
Finally, if you encounter someone outside who does appear to be in a life-threatening situation, such as if they are incapacitated or unable to speak, calling 911 will dispatch emergency responders.
Still, only use 911 if it’s an immediate health and safety emergency, Malone said.
“Often times people in crisis can evoke fear or just uncertainty in people who aren’t familiar with these kinds of conditions,” Malone said. Society has trained us to pick up the phone and dial 911, but the region’s homelessness crisis has already maxed out emergency services and often it’s not a good use of resources, he said.
There are also scenarios where someone’s personal history with emergency responders might make them anxious or respond negatively in the presence of unfamiliar people, Malone added.