| Brrrrrrr. It’s warm this week, but according to the National Weather Service, Asheville had 20 days last month when the temperature dropped below freezing—and one day when it never rose above freezing. That’s not even taking wind chill into account, or freezing rain and sleet.
Luckily, most of us have safe warm homes and offices to protect us from the cold. But not all of our neighbors do. In December, our community partner BeLoved Asheville estimated they’d spoken to over 200 people during one outreach campaign alone—200 people who were living outdoors, without adequate shelter from the weather. And make no mistake, weather like this can kill, and it does. BeLoved’s street medic team was formed after the death in 2016 of Janet Jones, who I knew as a tiny old woman always in a red coat. It wasn’t enough to prevent her from freezing to death on the streets of Asheville.
Code Purple is a phrase used nationally to indicate days when the weather will be dangerous for those without shelter. Typically, homeless shelters will relax their limits during Code Purple to allow people to sleep indoors who wouldn’t otherwise be able to. However, each shelter chooses whether and how to participate, and even on Code Purple nights there still aren’t enough shelter beds in Asheville for everyone. Far too many people must cope with the weather on their own, and often they do it without access to weather forecasts on TV or a smartphone. Most of us may know for days ahead of time when there’s a winter storm or “polar vortex” on the way, but the people who most need the warning, so they can prepare in advance, often don’t have any warning at all.
Code for Asheville and BeLoved are helping to change that. In December, BeLoved’s Homeless Voice group (which I’ve been part of since its inception in 2016) began talking about how to improve Code Purple, focusing first on better ways to let people know when the weather was going to be dangerous. We decided we wanted a text service, where people could sign up to receive Code Purple alerts. Although many homeless folk still don’t have phone service, those who do would be able to spread the alert by word of mouth.
Code for Asheville members began working on the BeLoved website the same year, and it’s currently under the care of Alyx Perry, so BeLoved asked her to help out with the textline too. “We have a great relationship with Alyx,” said Amy Cantrell, “and we love working in collaborations. It just seemed a natural fit!”
Alyx spent a couple hours researching options and chose RainedOut, a free text service designed for small grassroots groups. After that, it was a simple matter to set up an account and send out a few tests. The StaySafe line went live on January 23, and 18 people have already signed up. And because BeLoved chooses and sends the alerts, it can be used not just for Code Purple but also for warnings about river flooding or other emergencies.
“Being able to alert folks by text message was a huge leap in quickly communicating with the homeless community, and this was one of those great opportunities to use a very simple tech solution to make a big impact,” says Alyx. “Really the only challenge was finding a suitable platform that could be easily managed by folks without extensive tech knowledge. It’s so encouraging when you discover that some ‘good geek’ out there has already done the work to create accessible solutions. All we need to do is link these tools with local needs!”
It doesn’t take a complicated project, a GitHub repository, or a team of engineers to make a real difference in people’s lives. Sometimes, all it takes is a few hours from one person who cares.