Claire Thornton, USA TODAY

Across the country, coat drives are in full swing this month as more Americans than ever lack the winter clothing they need to stay warm.

In Rochester, New York, registration has filled up for the Coats for Kids drive, which distributes 1,000 coats to children each year in late fall.

In Western Pennsylvania, volunteers with the Bundle-up Initiative will take kids and older adults on shopping trips for new coats. But every year, many people are turned away from the program because a lack of money, the group says.

Near Scranton, Pennsylvania, the Salvation Army had to add a fourth coat collection location this year.

The need for coats coincides with new data from the U.S. Census Bureau showing the poverty rate shot up dramatically in 2022 for the first time in more than a decade. More Americans don’t have enough resources to meet their basic need for food, clothing, shelter, utilities and internet access.

This month, donated gently used coats for adults and children are needed to help close the gap millions of Americans face between what they need and what they can afford, said Beth Amodio, CEO of the national nonprofit One Warm Coat.

“The clients our agencies are serving are really living paycheck to paycheck, and one small thing can cause them not to be able to meet their budget needs,” she said.

This year, One Warm Coat’s hundreds of member agencies across the country reported demand for winter coats in their areas is more than 50% greater than the fall of 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s daunting to our agencies,” Amodio said. “They are feeling overwhelmed. They’re feeling anxious about being able to meet the needs of their clients.”

The high level of need can feel insurmountable, so it’s valid that people who want to help may feel stuck or unsure of where to start, Amodio said. But giving to a local coat drive is always a concrete way to make a difference, she said

“This is one very small way to take a step forward and do something very tangible,” she said. “It’s impossible to change the world. But it is possible to change one person’s experience, one person at a time.”

Where is a winter coat drive near me?

All kinds of local businesses and organizations may be running coat drives in your community this fall and winter. Demand usually spikes in November, so October is a great time to donate gently used coats, Amodio said. But there’s no wrong time to give, she said, because the “need is unfortunately a constant.”

You can enter your ZIP code on One Warm Coat’s national donation map to find a coat drive in your area. The map gives the address and donation collection hours of hundreds of coat drives throughout the winter.

More coat drives will be added to the map beginning in October, Amodio said. Different member organizations serve different demographics, she said, including homeless LGBTQ+ young peoplenewly arrived immigrants and people who were recently incarcerated.

People can also donate money if they don’t have any gently used coats they can give away.

Unhoused people particularly vulnerable to cold

People who live outdoors, in tents or in vehicles are particularly vulnerable to freezing temperatures and wet winter weather. They also face more health dangers from the cold, said Margot Kushel, a physician and director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco.

This winter, unhoused people may need to:

  • Use more coats and blankets than the average person so they can stay warm outside, Kushel said.
  • If their coat gets wet, they may need to replace it if they aren’t able to dry it properly.
  • People experiencing homelessness may try to start a fire to keep warm, but that poses additional risks, Kushel said.

Unhoused people are also at much higher risk of life-threatening hypothermia and frostbite, Kushel said.

“Once people are homeless, everything else falls apart. Being unable to protect oneself from the elements is another example of the horrors and dangers of homelessness.”

Everyone in need faces ‘different circumstances,’ Chicago mom says

Lifelong Chicago native Larra Mattix is planning to soon get coats for her two children, ages 4 and 5, at a kids coat drive at a food bank. Her children outgrew their coats from last year, she said, and she has set herself a deadline of November to make sure they have what they need to stay warm this winter.

“My first priority is just to make sure they’re warm,” said Mattix, 25. “It’s important for all three of us to be warm, because Chicago weather is kind of iffy.”

Mattix and her family were unhoused this year, but they just secured a studio apartment in southwest Chicago, so staying warm inside won’t be a concern, she said.

Mattix also needs a new coat for herself. Her coat from last winter no longer fits because her weight changed drastically after she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease almost four months ago.

“I never realized how life worked until I got diagnosed with this,” Mattix said. “Even though I don’t want to change, there’s stuff I have to now that I’m diagnosed. It’s like a whole new ball game.”

She said she can try to save up enough money these next couple of weeks from her jobs as an in-home caretaker and security guard to buy a new coat. But she recently had to cut her work hours to 26 a week because of her medical condition.

If she can’t save the money, she said, she hopes the staff at Lincoln Park Community Services can help connect her to more coat drives. The Chicago winter is going to feel worse when she’s outside waiting on the train, the bus or an Uber, she said.

“Standing out there is going to be a hazard, especially on the days when the snow actually hits,” Mattix said.

In addition to the elements, many families experiencing poverty may not be able to afford to heat their homes, or poorly insulated buildings may make it much harder to stay warm indoors, Amodio said. She said she has heard of some kids wearing their donated winter coats at all times during the winter, including inside, to keep warm.

Mattix said she’s grateful she’s working two jobs, has strong support from her case worker and her best friend, and is blessed with two loving children. Other people in her position aren’t nearly as lucky, she said.

“All of the people here, we’re in the same situation but with different circumstances,” she said. “It’s kind of an up-and-down roller coaster.”

Poverty rate in America is up in 2023

In 2023, more Americans are living in poverty after the poverty rate shot up dramatically in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Notably, the poverty rate for children in 2022 more than doubled from 2021.

Experts caution the situation could get worse if government officials and politicians fail to fill in families’ financial gaps with social safety net programs.

Child tax credits, expanded unemployment benefitsMedicaid and food stamps caused poverty in America to drop to record lows in 2020 and 2021, said Zachary Parolin, a professor at Columbia University and author of the book Poverty in the Pandemic: Lessons from COVID-19.” But now the nation is headed back in the opposite direction, he said.

“After three consecutive years of the lowest poverty rates on record, the streak is now broken,” Parolin said.

All the data confirms what Amodio’s One Warm Coat has been hearing from local coat drive organizers across the country: People’s financial situations appear to be getting worse as a result of longstanding inequities.

“What we’re seeing is that the impact of the last three years is really turning out to be long-lasting.”