‘I’m just trying to survive’: Outreach workers rush to get unsheltered Philadelphians inside during Code Blue

This story is from Young, Unhoused and Unseen, a podcast production from WHYY News and Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting.

Find it on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Windchill in Philadelphia is expected to near 20 degrees in the early hours of Dec. 20. The city’s “Code Blue” warning is in effect, with the hopes of saving lives.

It was about an hour after sunset, and the temperature was dropping.

Tony Reed sat on the sidewalk beside his wife, who was almost invisible under a blanket.

Scattered around them laid old household appliances and furniture — discarded objects Reed collects and repairs to earn money. Wooden pallets turned on their ends formed makeshift walls around the couple, but offered little protection from the wind. The underbelly of I-95 loomed overhead, obscuring the dark night sky.

“As long as we’re under the blankets, I guess we should probably be alright,” Reed said.

Reed layered a gray coat over his sweatshirt. His clothes were still damp from a few days before, when the wind had blown rain sideways under the overpass, leaving Reed and his wife in “puddles.”

“With the weather being cold — yeah, it was bad,” he said. “We’re all still trying to get over that. I still got the chills and everything.”

Hours before Reed and his wife hunkered down for the night beneath the overpass in Port Richmond last Wednesday, the city called a Code Blue — meaning weather conditions made it particularly dangerous for the hundreds of unsheltered Philadelphians to be outside.

“It’d be great to have more clothes, but I can’t do nothing about it,” Reed said. “It is what it is.”

Tony and the group he lives with brought their stuff to the sidewalk after they were forced to leave a fenced off lot near Ontario Street in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sleeping outside can be deadly

Homelessness is dangerous year round. But during the winter, it can be especially deadly.

Around 700 people live unsheltered in Philadelphia, according to this year’s “point in time” count, a measure that’s generally considered an underestimate. So far this year, at least 12 people have died from exposure to cold. Last year, that count stood higher than two dozen.

  • December 20, 2023
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