I’ve just returned from the 2014 ALA Midwinter conference in Philadelphia. The average temperature was around 11 degrees Fahrenheit. I had free time between my meetings — time I would usually have used to run to the Liberty Bell and other historical highlights within walking distance. Instead, the bitter cold and snow kept me indoors. When I ventured outside for food, I’d tread lightly on the ice covered sidewalks and the above-shoe-height puddles of slush on the streets. The only bit of skin I showed was just around my glasses. It was beyond freezing for me.
Despite the cold, there were homeless men every few yards on nearly every sidewalk. Half held up cardboard signs proclaiming their homeless status while others just huddled under one blanket in a doorway while icy concrete emerged from underneath their blankets. I saw men missing legs propped up in wheelchairs. Everyone’s hair was gray, their skin leathery, and deep wrinkles ran from the corner of their eyes towards their jawbones.
My colleague and I had just emerged from Reading Terminal Market. We were waiting for the light to turn to cross the street. I then noticed a man lowering himself onto the wet sidewalk across the way. He looked to be 60+ and was lying back on the sidewalk and stretching out. Then he went up onto his heels and curled his fingers into the grate beneath him. Thus he raised up a little bit and moved this way and that till he found the optimal spot. His eyes were closed and his face was a study in concentrated satisfaction. Beneath him, white bellows of steam escaped around his body; he was lying on top of a sewer grate for warmth.
As I walked around the cavernous conference center, I kept thinking about this large building that is heated and has restrooms, sofas, and power outlets. I wondered since this is a big conference, if the local homeless populace could come in, pretend to be an attendee and just stay out of the biting cold for a bit. But if they left their sidewalk territory, they’d miss their chance at raising funds so they could live.
This is of course not the first time I’ve seen homeless people or homeless people outside a major conference I was attending. It was the cold weather, the sheer number of men, and the sight of so many huddled into doorways into the night that has stuck with me more than anything I heard or participated in at Midwinter. I do not fully know Philadelphia’s efforts to help their most needy and vulnerable residents. I was also under the mistaken impression that a portion of Philadelphia’s Restaurant Week would go towards charity.
I don’t know if there’s anything we can do as a profession and professionals to help out our fellow man while we attend our conferences. I do not pretend to know the stories of the men I saw or why they were there outside instead of seeking a night’s reprieve from the dangerous temperatures. There is Project Home of Philadelphia which “empowers people to break the cycle of homelessness” and other organizations that can help.
Note: I’ve made a slight edit for myself.