5 ways you can help those facing homelessness in the cold

"The epidemic of homelessness in our country has been a tragedy. And the pandemic has made that challenge all the greater," says Kenneth Hodder, commissioner of the Salvation Army. By Ashley Vaughan, CNN

(CNN) -- Plummeting temperatures are forcing people indoors seeking warmth.

But for those who call city streets home, heading inside is not always a realistic option.

Homelessness across the US is reaching record highs, due to the economic impact of coronavirus.

And as shelters deal with increased occupancy, the pandemic also poses immense safety challenges to people seeking refuge.

It all leads to an increase in people literally stuck out in the cold.

Instead of walking by, here are a few ways you can help:

Locate a shelter or warming center

From your smartphone you can connect someone you believe to be experiencing homelessness with support. The Salvation Army claims to have a presence in nearly every zip code across the country. And every location can serve as a warming station.

"The pandemic has been laid on top of an epidemic. The epidemic of homelessness in our country has been a tragedy, and the pandemic has made that challenge all the greater," says Salvation Army Commissioner Kenneth Hodder.

The organization is tailoring responses to fit the unique needs of each of its communities — including locations caught up in the current cold snap. People can locate their nearest Salvation Army center through the organization's online location finder.

With increased demand, Hodder explains that local chapters are getting creative to meet the needs of this unprecedented time. He says some locations are transforming everyday spaces like thrift stores and school gyms into shelters and warming centers. Hodder says each warming center is following state Covid-19 safety guidelines including social distancing and providing PPE.

"The Salvation Army is involved coast to coast in dealing with the challenges of these extraordinarily cold days," Hodder tells CNN.

The non-profit is also encouraging those who want to get involved to consider inventive, grassroots solutions. For example, in Poughkeepsie, New York, Salvation Army staff tied winter weather gear to light poles to be fully at the disposal of those who need them.

"Even if they can't get to us, they have access to warm clothing," Hodder tells CNN.

He points out that a roof over one's head, doesn't necessarily mean heat in one's home. As Covid-19 decimates household budgets, millions of Americans are forced to prioritize paying for housing over affording utilities and food.

"Last year, almost 10 million people lost their jobs. Last year, another 8 million fell into poverty. These are the people who are going to be suffering the most this week."

For these individuals, Hodder recommends placing a call to 1-800-SAL-ARMY to connect those in need directly to helpful resources.

"If they do not have enough heat, if they are stranded as a traveler, if they find their children don't have enough blankets ... we'll get to them and we will provide what help they need."

In addition to the Salvation Army, shelters can also be located through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's shelter finder here. The site also provides directions for finding food pantries and health clinics.

Make warm meals, donate rides, call 211

On cold days, a hot homemade meal can go a long way. So consider making meals and delivering them to those living outdoors.

Mei Cobb, of the United Way, has seen volunteers make hot meals in group kitchens and distribute them in places where people experiencing homelessness often gather.

"Some are actually putting together a meal that can be heated," Cobb tells CNN.

In response to Covid-19, The United Way launched its Ride United Last Mile delivery program in partnership with Lyft and Doordash. Donations toward this initiative help bridge a transportation gap between food pantries and vulnerable populations.

The United Way also says many of its local partners are accepting winter coat donations. By donating a gently used coat though a local United Way chapter, someone living outdoors may have better protection against frigid temperatures. To maximize efforts, at-home volunteers can organize a clothing drive among family and friends, with support of a local United Way chapter.

"To really address issues, people can get engaged as a volunteer. They can give their time, their talent and so many United Ways are doing a variety of programs whether it's putting together clothing, making sure folks have a warm winter coat, a scarf, and mittens, or boots ... even hand warmers." Cobb says.

"They can contact the local United Way or contact a shelter or a program in their community," she explains to CNN.

The United Way also encourages those who want to help to use the 211, non-emergency hot line, which serves as a connection point for referral services and resources in one's own community. The United Way recommends directing individuals to this hotline number for timely, direct relief.

"It will share with you resources in your community for whatever the need may be —whether its homelessness now or any issues you maybe faced with." Cobb explains.

Create hygiene kits from home

Another way to support those facing homelessness is by providing local shelters with hygiene and care kits. The Bowery Mission in New York City put together a comprehensive list of needed items to support their organization. The list includes travel-size bottles of shampoo, deodorant, non-alcoholic mouth wash, and other essential hygiene needs. Loose items can be placed in a backpack for easier transport to kit recipients. To personalize kits, consider leaving a homemade note of encouragement for added emotional wellness.

Volunteer digitally

Texas-based non-profit Our Calling empowers everyone to digitally volunteer with one swipe on a smartphone. The organization features a public app that serves two purposes: helping those in need find nearby shelters and enabling users to report homeless encampments, facilitating distribution of aid.

Our Calling says its app works nationwide, sending local findings to the right city's homelessness response team. The app features over 100,000 agencies across the country. The software also allows users to submit services not yet included in the app's data base.

Currently in Dallas, Texas, Our Calling volunteers are cruising city streets to offer temporary shelter to those outdoors.

"We will send case workers there to help those people exit the streets if they so desire or at least check in on them if they don't want to," Patrick Palmer of Our Calling says.

"During the cold snap, volunteers are driving around reporting homeless encampments and our care ministers are going to those locations and offering them a chance off the street. We have teams driving all over Dallas following up on those reports."

Palmer says, upon arrival, guests are provided with temperature checks, Covid-19 testing and PPE. Social distancing is also enforced.

Unfortunately for Our Calling, freezing Texas temperatures burst pipes and flooded their headquarters. They plan to work from a parking lot until repairs can be made.

Donate money

Every organization featured in this piece made clear that financial donations are always needed. It is a powerful way people can help from miles away and make long-lasting impacts and meet needs both now and later, when things thaw out.

You can donate to any of the organizations featured in this article by clicking this link or the button below:

"This disaster is not going to be done when it's not cold; all one thousand of these people are going to walk into the streets and won't be going into a home," Palmer explains. "They will be laying on sidewalks, going under bridges. Their disaster is not over once the cold weather goes away."

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