Where Do Homeless People Sleep in Winter?

A man is sitting in a small tent on a mountain in snow.

Winter time can one of the hardest times to be homeless, but for some it can also be one of the easiest times. This isn’t to say that any aspect of being homeless is easy, but some homeless people actually prefer winter over summer depending on their circumstances and where they’re located.

Because winter season can get very cold for people living outside, there’s often more resources available for homeless people during this time. This is why some may actually prefer winter, as there’s sometimes more organizations and companies willing to help during those times in many areas.

However, this really depends on where a person is located and what agencies or organizations are nearby. There’s still many homeless people that can’t find decent shelter during winter and according to the NHCHC (National Health Care for the Homeless Council), at least 700 homeless people die every year from being out in the cold.

I myself was homeless during both summer and winter, though I was located in Northern California during most of my homeless stint. I actually preferred summer time over winter, but that’s because I preferred sleeping outside as I liked the feeling of more freedom and I like to be around others all the time.

So if you’re just curious about where homeless people go and how they survive during winter, here’s a few of the most common scenarios. These are just about the only options they have if they don’t have a vehicle to sleep in or friends or family who will take them in for awhile.

More Shelters Open
When it gets below a certain temperature in the United States, there’s often more homeless shelters and locations opened for people to sleep at. When I was homeless in San Jose, California, there were about three main shelters in the area that were open year-round, but other spots would open up as temperatures dropped below 60 degrees at night.

The military even provided shelter for people in my local area when the risk of hypothermia became a reality for the people living on the streets. The local National Guard Armory was one location that would open it’s doors to homeless people during cold temperatures and provided them with a place to sleep.

But because cold temperatures can force many homeless people from the streets into shelters, this can cause overcrowding and there may not be beds available in the everyday shelters in an area. This is why places like armories, churches, and other facilities with large gymnasiums or sleeping areas can open their doors.

Most of the time, these temporary seasonal shelters are makeshift shelters which will have many cots or beds set-up in a gym or arena-type location.

As far as homeless facilities go, these winter shelters can be some of the roughest because you have so many people crammed into one large room or building and many of those people are those who normally sleep outside on the streets when conditions are better.

Sleeping Outside
It’s somewhat for a person in the United States to have no resources in terms of shelter during winter, but it can and does happen sometimes. For most homeless people, there’s either a temporary emergency shelter for homeless people nearby when temperatures drop or they will have to travel to the next largest city to locate shelter.

In rare circumstances, such as people living in very remote areas with small populations, there may not be any shelters nearby and no big cities within a reasonable traveling distance. For these people and those who choose to stay on the streets during winter, finding warm places to sleep can be difficult.

It’s hard enough as a homeless person to find a place to sleep at night in most cities that doesn’t have the risk of a trespassing charge or that’s safe and isolated, but winter can make things even harder. Homeless people who choose not to go to shelters (for whatever reason) or who can’t go to shelters will often go to places that are open 24 hours like Starbucks or will even try to stay in hospital lobbies until morning.

Once the day comes, they will often sleep out in the open in public parks and other places as daytime is usually warmer than nighttime. This is why you often see homeless people sleeping during daytime hours on the street and in other public areas. It’s not always because they’re too lazy during the day to look for a job, but often because they have nowhere to sleep at night and must stay active.

In regards to those who do sleep at night or when it’s really cold, their only options to stay warm at that point is to use lots of cardboard, which helps trap in heat, and to completely surround themselves in this cardboard by making small shelters out of it and filling the inside with as many blankets and other materials as they can.

Public Transportation
For those who can’t find a shelter to take them in or who are too far from any, some homeless people sleep on public transportation such as buses, subways, and other forms.

As I mentioned before, I was homeless in the Bay Area, California where it can get somewhat cold at night (although definitely not as cold as places around the world where it actually snows). I slept on the “Hotel 22” when I first became homeless, which was the #22 bus in my area that would do 1 hour routes at a time.

I’d typically get on the bus in San Jose, California at the Eastridge Mall and would ride it for about an hour with other homeless people on all sides of me who were also sleeping there.

I would then have to wake up and get off the buss once it arrived at it’s destination in Palo Alto. I’d have to wait there in the cold with all the other homeless people until the next bus would leave again from Palo Alto back to San Jose and would sleep in shifts like this almost every night.

As horrible as this was, to have to wake up and wait every hour, this was much better than trying to stay warm in the cold outside. For many homeless people around the world, this is their daily or nightly routine and the only options they feel they have.

Hospital Lobbies
Although this scenario is rare, it does happen when homeless people have nowhere else to go. I spent one of my homeless nights in a hospital all night because it was cold and raining outside. I didn’t look homeless to the security that was there and I made it appear that I was waiting to see a doctor in the emergency room lobby.

I didn’t really get much sleep the whole night as security may have noticed if I was snoring or with my eyes shut for longer than a half hour or so, but I did pass in and out of sleep and consciousness throughout the night as I sat in the most discreet side of the room where I hoped nobody would notice me.

This was before I knew about the #22 bus that ran all night, so I felt I had no other option other than this. There’s not many homeless people that would try doing this, but I knew I was clean shaven at the time and only had my backpack with me, so I felt I could keep up the appearance that I was a patient and simply waiting for the doctor.

Emergency room lobbies in my area were packed with people at night and there were often long waits to have your name called to see a doctor. So it wasn’t too out of the ordinary for me to be sitting there and I doubt anybody even noticed me or was able to differentiate me from other people sitting there who actually wanted to see the doctor.