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  • Writer's pictureCraig Allen Heath

34 Degrees

At the most recent WordFest meeting in March, I was affected strongly by one reading in particular, and I wrote a poem on the spot about it. Homelessness is a sad and seemingly intractable problem in the United States, and here in my new corner of the world, it's getting worse - both in the sheer numbers of people without shelter, and the contentiousness of the debate.

A woman who volunteers a great deal of her time and effort to the cause read a short personal story about her work with a local shelter, and one thing struck me: She said that the rules kept the doors of the shelter shut unless the temperature reached 33 degrees for two consecutive nights. I knew that our town is tight with it's alms-giving, but I didn't realize just how tight. I was struck by the news.

So I wrote the following poem that night and read it to the group that night. A poem doesn't put a roof over anybody's head, but maybe it can put charity in somebody's heart.


34 Degrees

I am told

by a woman who knows these things

in her bones,

Mercy takes my temperature.

Death, too, watches the mercury.

My blood, chilled to 95 degrees

for 3 hours

buys my ticket across the Styx.

The guy with the scythe

feels my brow,

checks his watch,

and waits.

1 bone-cold night

out of doors, out of sight

out of luck,

and I am in the boat.

But, if the air I breathe

dips no lower than 34 degrees,

the doors of salvation

stay closed and locked.

The shelter

where I could hide from the old boy

for a night

will not open.

Rules, and rights,

and responsibilities, and regulations, and reasons

declare the quality of Mercy

strains at 34 degrees.

34 is a number.

34 degrees is a measure,

and the measure of a life

is 34 degrees.


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1 Comment

Rick E. George
Rick E. George
Apr 06, 2023

Thank you for caring. I wish it were not so, that all of us would be united in our compassion to act, but, unfortunately we are not. The answer is political. One party blames the poor for being poor. Another believes that we are indeed our brother's keepers. We need to elect people who care enough to act, and then put pressure on them to do so. This should not happen in a nation of obscene wealth.

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