I know, I know...it is a stretch to say that we have harsh winters here in Columbia, South Carolina. We are a city famous for canceling school at the first sign of a flake and for buying up all the milk, bread, and eggs just in case we get snowed in and desperately want to make French toast. It is safe to say that Columbians are NOT considered adepts at navigating extreme winter weather.
Nevertheless, even mild winter temperatures can leave those without shelter vulnerable and at risk for illness. Think about how many days out of the year you run the heat in your house or put on an extra layer for the walk from your car to the office, store, or house. Consider the little things you do during your day that bring warmth - drinking a cup of coffee, donning a hat, or turning up the heat in your car. Each of those moments represents an opportunity you have to choose comfort. The word that strikes me here is: choose. Lately, I have become aware of the freedom I have to choose things in my life. I get to choose what I want to eat, I choose what I wear, I choose whether I want to buy this or that thing. As I have noticed this freedom in my life, I have also realized the bondage that is caused by the poverty cycle. When your immediate needs aren't automatically met, you lose the freedom to choose comfort because you must seek survival. During the winter months, mild as they seem compared to Chicago, NYC, or Denver, there are unique challenges to those experiencing homelessness. There are things that are essential for survival that some people can't provide for themselves or their families.
1. Winter Clothing
Warm layers are essential during colder seasons, especially when you spend the majority of your days and nights outside. For someone who has shelter, it is easy to store coats, hats, and boots in a closet or bin during the warmer months and then pull them out of storage as needed. For those with no place to call home, they must carry those layers around year-round or get new ones each year, which costs money. This is why blanket and coat drives are so important. By providing free, warm items, the community can help reduce the annual costs those experiencing homelessness face.
Perhaps the most obvious need during the winter is shelter. Columbia gets a LOT of rain during January, February, and March. That dampness, combined with chilly temperatures, can lead to illness quickly for those exposed to the elements. During these high-risk months, Oliver Gospel opens up emergency beds in Oliver Hall (our dining facility) because it can quite literally save lives.
3. Warm Food
While the amount of food a person needs doesn't shift with the seasons, warm food and drinks can go a long way in helping the body stay warm and produce energy that regulates your body temperature. While any food can help fill stomachs, there is a reason we gravitate toward soup, stews, and hot cocoa during the winter - They warm us up! This time of year is a great opportunity to buy someone a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup, if you are able.
I want to be clear about something: This post is not meant to make you feel guilty for the freedom you have to choose comfortable things in life. Give thanks to the Lord for the grace He has lavished on you by providing for you in this way! "Praise the Lord. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever." (Psalms 106:1 NIV)
Instead, I want to challenge you, because of your freedom, to let your heart be moved with compassion, recognizing the ability God has given you to lavish grace on people in your community. Heed John the Baptist's command in Luke 3 when he says, "Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same." (Luke 3:11 NIV) Let the gratitude in your heart overflow into your actions. You have been given the incredible opportunity to change someone's life through compassion and generosity.
If you are reading this blog as a past or current donor, volunteer, or partner of Oliver Gospel, I want to thank you, on behalf of each staff member and guest here. We wouldn't be able to do what we do without you.