With the start of hypothermia season, Nov. 1, approaching, Mayor Anthony Williams recently released a plan detailing how the private and public sectors will provide emergency shelter and other basic human services throughout the frigid winter months.
Under the 2004-2005 Winter Plan, the District has budgeted $1,600,000, a 12.5% increase from last year’s plan, to offer 1,703 beds, an increase of 448 beds from last year’s plan, to homeless men, women, and children. The plan does not include any budget details.
Yvonne Gilchrist, director of the Department of Human Services, the lead agency on the plan, said that the goal of the plan each year is to increase the number of beds, “but as we do so, we’re going to provide the types of services that are going to be needed in all of our shelters to help people move into independence.”
“I think what you’ll find in the plan this year is that we are continuously improving,” she added.
The plan received mixed reaction from advocates and service providers.
Chapman Todd, regional director at Catholic Charities, which is directly involved with running many of the hypothermia shelters, said that this plan was a big improvement over those of past years.
“The plan has gotten more organized over the years and anticipatory for the needs through the winter. I think the plan has been pretty good at addressing potential issues,” said Todd, “and it has more detail now.”
The first official Winter Plan was announced in 1992-1993 in response to the Frigid Temperature Protection Amendment Act of 1988, which requires the city to shelter homeless individuals when the temperature falls below 26 degrees.
And although the city has provided an increasing number of services for homeless people during that time, some advocates believe that there is more to be done, and that the city’s plan could be better.
“The numbers [of those in need] have increased,” said Mary Ann Luby of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “Programmatically, we need to have trained front-end people,” something that is not mandated by the plan. “I think that the hypothermia season provides us a great opportunity to reach out to the community.”
Currently, hypothermia shelters are emergency services designed with almost no restrictions on use. These low-barrier (high tolerance) shelters do not require identification in order to receive assistance, and there are no caseworkers. The idea is to shelter as many people as possible and not to dissuade people from accessing shelters because of the typical requirements.
That, however, means little or no outreach. And Luby said that this is a missed opportunity. “You can create a sense of community, or a level of openness for this population, without intruding on their
privacy,” she explained. “However, many of the emergency shelters are open sporadically and staffed undertrained part-time workers, who not may have an understanding of how to help the homeless population.”
Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition occurring when a person’s body temperature falls below 95 degrees due to exposure to cold and wet conditions. Experts say that it is particularly dangerous for persons who are disabled by substance abuse or mental illness and may be unaware that their body temperature has fallen to the point of danger. The Emergency Management Agency issues hypothermia alerts when the temperature is 35 degrees Fahrenheit or below, or when the wind chill factor creates the same effect.
Last year, the winter of 2003-2004, there were 102 hypothermia alert days during the 151-day period from November to March. Temperatures were colder in 2002-2003, with a total of 110 hypothermia alert days.
In the previous two winners, the Office of the Medical Examiner confirmed one death that was due strictly to the cold, though at least a dozen homeless people were found dead outside during the winter months in these years.
Weather for January, February, and March 2005 is predicted to be colder than average, according to the National Weather Service.
Stephen Cleghorn, of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, which helps coordinate daily operations under the plan, believes that the city is working harder than ever so that no one has to go unsheltered.
“The City is making good on its commitment to the people of this city. The plan was put out early, and it is well detailed.” Cleghorn said. “And there is a lot of capacity this year.”
Still, capacity and location are concerns for service providers and homeless advocates, because it is difficult to predict the number of beds needed and what locations will best serve the homeless populations. T.J. Sutcliffe, director of advocacy for So Others Might Eat, said that the city is opening shelters away from downtown rather than opening shelters in areas that have shown past success in getting people to come in out of the cold.
“Location is incredibly important,” Sutcliffe said. “In past winters, shelters in Columbia Heights and downtown saw much heavier use than shelters in other parts of the city. Particularly in Columbia Heights, the need for shelter during cold weather has far exceeded the number of emergency and hypothermia shelter beds.”
“The 1355-1257 New York Avenue, NE, shelter will be in its second full year of operation with 160 hypothermia beds. Catholic Charities will staff three large hypothermia shelters for adults, one more than last year, and three 25-bed church shelters. The city is renovating the 801 East building on Saint Elizabeth’s campus to provide shelter for men. Franklin School, D.C. Village, and D.C. General Hospital will expand this season.
The Gales School at 65 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, will no longer serve as a shelter for single adults. At the end of October, the old Randall School in southwest will close as a permanent shelter for homeless men without replacement close by. Maridian Hill Baptist Church in Ward 1 will also not open its doors to men this year. Some providers feel that First Seventh Day Adventist Church, in the Petworth neighborhood, will work well to replace it.
All shelters will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on hypothermia alert days.
Besides providing beds, the Winter Plan also calls for transportation to these locations. And the United Planning Organization will operate six vans overnight and two in the morning. The Coalition for the Homeless, House of Ruth, and the Salvation Army vans will also provide transportation and cover all wards of the city.
These trained drivers will monitor those who refuse shelter and provide them with blankets, sleeping bags, jackets, boots, hats, gloves, and scarves. Though, by an executive order from the mayor, the city will use authorized procedures to remove homeless people from the streets if their lives are immediately threatened by the cold.