Four Dangerous Ways the Poor Try to Survive When It is Cold


When it is cold at home, most of us will turn up the thermostat, perhaps will a little reluctance and grumbling, perhaps without a thought. We might throw an extra blanket on the kids’ beds and make sure they have warm socks or slippers. We might even put on a jacket. For the poor, getting warm at home can often mean something very different.

The Operation Warm mission focuses on children, and staying warm becomes an even more intense priority when you are a parent or caregiver. For the poor, just having some place to live can be a blessing. There are 1.6 million American children who are homeless. Sometimes, though, having a roof over your head is still not enough to protect you from the elements. This is especially true in the winter, when a drafty house or apartment and a lack of adequate heating can result in an average indoor temperature that is twenty or more degrees below comfort. Even when heat is included in a housing situation, it may not always be available. Some low rent building owners do not keep up with furnace repairs or fuel deliveries.

When the home is desperately cold, the poor do resort to some resourceful tricks, such as covering windows with plastic and blocking off a drafty back door. Often these practices just aren’t enough to stay warm.

Many of the poor must come up with additional options, and not all of them are safe ones. It may be hard for us to understand, but sometimes these families don’t realize the danger, and sometimes they decide any risk is better than freezing to death. Fear of the cold can be a powerful thing.

Here are four dangerous ways some of the poor keep warm when it is cold.

Space Heaters

A new space heater that is up to code and properly supervised can offer some extra direct heat when needed. Unfortunately, many families don’t have the $80-$200 needed per heater, and often make due with older models they have “fixed.” According to Consumer Reports Magazine, Older space heaters “account for one-third of all home-heating fires each year, and more than 80 percent of home-heating fire deaths.”

Backyard Burning

One of our supporters, who worked as a driver of an emergency fuel delivery truck, said he would often spot the same heartbreaking situation at multiple homes. Many families with young children would burn whatever possessions they could, in the backyard, and huddle around the fire to get warm. Often the fuel consisted of an old mattress, household furniture or pressure treated wood from outdoor structures, all of which could release toxic fumes and cause neighborhood fires from errant sparks.

Using the Oven as a Heat Source

Turning on the oven and leaving the door open is one way some compromised families try to stay warm. Not designed for this purpose, a gas oven can go out, leading to dangerous fumes, and an electric oven can cause burns, especially to children.


Created for use in outdoor grills, inexpensive charcoal briquettes are sometimes used indoors to generate heat. Unfortunately, these materials are made for only outdoor use. Burning them indoors, including in a fireplace can release orderless toxic carbon monoxide fumes leading to death.

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Operation Warm Blog Post: Who are Most Affected by Poverty in the US?

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