Monday, March 07, 2005

Hiroshima Homeless

by AJ/Skald

Bless long underwear!! Double layer long underwear kept me warm during the worst of winter
while living in my van. Long underwear is making the Hiroshima winter bearable. Perhaps the
first thing we should do for homeless people is to give them two pair of high quality, two layer
long underwear. To that I would add a high quality camping pad... a z-rest for example. These
two items would make a world of difference for them.

I think of this as I contemplate the image of Hiroshimas homeless, who seem so much more
miserable than the homeless of Bangkok. At least in Bangkok the residents dont have to worry
about cold... find a plot of open ground and spread out and you are somewhat comfortable. But
the homeless people here break my heart. They are huddled on the sidewalk, wrapped in cotton
clothes-- hugging themselves to stay warm. They look chilled to the bone... a state made much
worse by lying on concrete. Thats another problem in Japan, for like America, the homeless
here are viewed as a scourge and an eyesore. They get chased out of parks and off of benches.
The goal, it seems, is to increase their suffering so they will go away and not interfere with the
cheer of Japanese good citizens. This mindset exists to a degree in Bangkok, but to a much lesser
degree. And in India... forget about it--- the homeless rule the sidewalks and parks. That, at
least, is one benefit of Indias widespread poverty. With so many poor and homeless, there is
not much stigma attached to the condition. Less shame. Less harrassment.

Anyone who has camped in the winter knows that a few basics make a world of difference. The
biggest enemy is the ground... which sucks heat rapaciously. It is thus essential to have a thermal
barrier between you and the earth. Thats where the z-rest comes in... a foam mat with ridges.
The ridges create air pockets between the pad and the body when you lay on it... These air
pockets warm and create an effective thermal barrier-- thus preventing heat from escaping to the
ground. The z-rest is very compact.. easily strapped to a small bookbag. Want to help a
homeless person in the winter? Give them a z-rest.

Long underwear is another essential, though the right kind is important. Cotton underwear, the
kind found at WalMart, does more harm than good. Cotton kills, is the backpackers motto. It
kills because when cotton gets wet it sucks heat rather than retains it. It can get wet from rain or
from sweat. Unfortunately, most homeless people I see are wrapped in cotton clothes (shirts,
sweatshirts, and jackets) and seem to be unaware of the fabrics dangerous qualities.
Long underwear should be constructed of polypropolene, polyester, or similar artificial fabrics.
Other clothing should also be of these fabrics, or of wool.... as should blankets, hats, gloves,
socks, and sleeping bags. These fabrics wick moisture away from the body and they continue to
insulate when wet.

My final addition to a compassionate kit for winter homelessness would be a rectangle of plastic
tarp material... found as drop cloth plastic in most hardware stores. This material is compact--
easily folded into a small bag. It can be used as a windbreak when sleeping on the streets,... or set
up as a tarp when camping in a park or the woods. Ive camped in subzero weather with gusting
winds using this exact setup. I wont say I was toasty, but it kept me from hypothermia.
Many will say we should focus our efforts on big-scale systemic solutions to homelessness. I
agree its a systemic problem and such action is necessary. However, macro-level actions do not
negate the need for immediate individual efforts. RIGHT NOW people are cold and miserable.
Their lives can be significantly improved by a few items and a little bit of knowledge. A z-rest, a
couple pair of thick acrylic long underwear, a few polyester shirts, a wool sweater, a wool hat
and scarf and gloves, a thick (non-cotton) jacket..... and a small plastic tarp-- these things could
make a world of difference to an individual who is trying to survive the streets in winter. Their
cost is minimal. Dont we owe them at least that? Cant we, as a society, at least provide for the
most basic of their needs?

(For the next step up the micro-macro ladder... how about a Mad Houser hut. These huts cost
only $300-500 dollars.... are insulated... and come with a wood stove for heating and cooking.
Just as importantly, they give their residents a modicum of autonomy, privacy, and safety.
Better a hut of oneís own than the humiliation of depending on shelters.).

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