Last Thursday I was leading a tour group of shivering students and their parents throughout our campus. After four 15-minute rounds in below freezing temperatures, it took all of the professionalism in me not to jog the last route. The nearly frozen prospectives and I were counting down the minutes until the tour was over so that we could return to the warm shelter of the indoors.
It takes only a couple of seconds outdoors to feel the bone-chilling temperatures on our faces and our fingers. It penetrates our winter wear and chills us to the core. We scurry to our classes, we take Safe Ride to avoid the wind and we layer on clothes — one, two, even three at a time.
But what about the people around us who don’t have the ability to huddle in a campus center or wait in a coffee shop until their on-call shuttle arrives?
According to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, 4,868 people in Rhode Island were homeless as of 2012. WPRI News reported Feb. 19 that this number has decreased to 4,100, but that is still 4,100 too many — especially in this weather.
Through conversations with friends over time, I have heard various reasons for quietly walking by the homeless, often with eyes on the ground. Some simply do not have change. Others do not feel comfortable giving money without knowing whether it will be spent “productively,” and some do contribute money, though only on occasion.
It is common to hear confusion among young adults and even older adults about the best way to help the homeless population. Many feel guilty and awkward if they don’t have change or bills in their pocket. Many don’t know whether to smile and say hello, to apologize for the lack of money or to just keep walking. I find most students avoid eye contact and hurry by. Sometimes I’m one of them.
JustGive.org cites the number one way to help the homeless is to educate yourself. This can mean a variety of things: dispelling stereotypes about the homeless, learning the different causes of homelessness and realizing every situation has its own story. Admittedly, these sound like very obvious pieces of advice. Brown students likely already know the various causes of homelessness, though it can never hurt to do more research.
But the average student probably does not know where the closest homeless shelter is — an imperative piece of information during the winter months. Countless individuals are exposed to the risks of hypothermia, sometimes even resulting in death, by remaining outside overnight in cold temperatures.
Dan Diamond, contributing writer for Forbes Magazine, wrote an article on this subject last January. He suggested that individuals who see a person sleeping outside while temperatures hover around or below freezing call the local hypothermia hotline. In Providence’s case, dial 211 or 311. Local health officials in Washington told him that “‘If someone is (choosing) to be on the street in this weather,’ he or she might have already refused shelter. … ‘And it’s probably safer to let a professional deal with it.’”
There are also many shelters around Providence. Sojourner House and Crossroads Rhode Island are two of the closest to campus. Brown also hosts a plethora of student groups including Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere and Food Recovery Network, a club that gathers extra food from campus eateries and donates it to those who need it, for students seeking a more hands-on way to contribute.
More long-term solutions that require less of a time commitment can range from donating to a shelter to foregoing a Chipotle burrito or two and giving that money to a local organization. Additionally, several times a year, Brown hosts food and clothing drives around campus — most notably at the end of the fall and spring semesters. Additional information on this can be found on the Dining Services website.
The simplest thing to do, however, is to remember to acknowledge the people we walk by. A smile and a hello go a long way. It may be too cold for campus tours, but it is never too cold to be kind.
Zein Khleif ’15 is an independent concentrator in political psychology. She can be reached at zein_khleif@brown.