Uncertainty over housing complicates DC’s preparations for hypothermia season

Photo of a large snow fall in Washington, DC. Park benches are nearly covered, with only their back visible.

Photo of benches buried under snowfall in 2016 at Archives/Navy Memorial. Photo by user ep_jhu / flickr

Members of the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) shelter capacity working group met June 23 to discuss last winter’s shelter numbers and plan bed-capacity recommendations for this winter’s hypothermia season. 

The meeting ended with work left to do.

During hypothermia season, which extends from Nov. 1 to March 31, the District is legally required to make shelter available for all who desire it whenever temperatures and wind chill reach 32 degrees. From 2011 to 2019, 42 people experiencing homelessness died from hypothermia, with another 68 deaths where hypothermia was a contributing or associated factor. While last winter’s hypothermia numbers have not yet been reported, at least 180 people experiencing homelessness in D.C. died in 2020, an estimated 13% due to COVID-19. 

[Read more: ANC calls on DHS to improve hypothermia season shelter accommodations amid COVID-19]

While the hour-long meeting was supposed to yield recommendations to go before the Department of Human Services (DHS), the working group ultimately delayed its decision. The first 30 minutes was spent presenting current shelter capacity and numbers of beds needed last winter. Most in attendance were alarmed when the chair opened up the last half hour for the group to create their recommendations for the upcoming winter. One meeting, they agreed, was not nearly enough time to predict how the end of federal housing assistance programs instituted during the pandemic might affect the number of people seeking shelter this winter.

[Read more: DC tells medically vulnerable people sheltering in hotels that permanent supportive housing vouchers have run out ]

From November 2020 to March 2021, a peak of 1,416 men sought shelter on hypothermia-alert nights, compared to a high of 1,254 on non-alert nights. On emergency alert nights, a high of 540 women sought shelter, compared to 513 on non-alert nights. The number of men and women residing at emergency shelters from November through the present has been greater than the same period in 2019.

A chart showing the increase in numbers of sheltered men experiencing homelessness in 2020 to 2021 in comparison to the previous year.
Number of sheltered men experiencing homelessness in 2020 to 2021 in comparison to the previous year. Courtesy of the ICH Shelter Capacity Committee

During the meeting, a senior staff member from a nonprofit service provider said that COVID-19 concerns might have affected typical hypothermia-weather shelter numbers, as some people may not have wished to risk living in the shared indoor space of a congregate shelter during the pandemic. 

A senior staff member from a different nonprofit raised concerns that the expected end of the D.C. eviction moratorium in September and uncertainty over how many rental subsidies will be available for the city’s rapid-rehousing programs could change how many people experience homelessness this fall and winter. According to the Aspen Institute, as of August 2020, 51,000 to 57,000 households in D.C. were at risk of eviction, representative of 118,000 to 131,000 people. The most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that 18,585 D.C. residents have no confidence, and 11,961 slight confidence, that they will be able to pay next month’s rent.

Increase in numbers of sheltered women experiencing homelessness in 2020 to 2021 in comparison to the previous year.
Number of sheltered women experiencing homelessness in 2020 to 2021 in comparison to the previous year. Courtesy of the ICH Shelter Capacity Committee

A number of federal resources to help are also time-limited. STAY D.C., for instance, offers $352 million in rental relief funds but could be redistributed to other states if the District does not spend at least $150 million by the end of the fiscal year. Similarly, the Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable Individuals (PEP-V) is expected to end in September when FEMA reimbursements will no longer be available. The hotels for the program housed up to 621 medically vulnerable people in non-congregate shelter spaces during the pandemic, and it’s conclusion may lead to an increased need for shelter beds this hypothermia season. 

[Read more: Councilmember considers buying hotels to support PEP-V shelter and convert them to housing]

Working group members also brought up concerns about how housing changes could impact families experiencing homelessness, in addition to individuals. Usually, transitional housing programs that offer short-term shelter between anywhere from 2 – 24 months have higher numbers of individuals compared to families. But as of May, transitional housing had higher rates of family occupancy, and the number of families in family shelters had decreased. Space for families is currently limited in rapid rehousing programs, which may place a larger burden on emergency shelters this winter.

With much still up in the air before it gets cold, the working group will meet again by July 15. The hypothermia plan will be finalized by the Emergency Response and Shelter Operations Committee — which is scheduled to meet July 28 — and finalized by the ICH Executive committee in September.

Issues |Health, Physical|Shelters|Weather

Region |Washington DC

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