Homeless face risks as hypothermia season begins in D.C.

November 6, 2014

The Department of Human Services issued a hypothermia alert on Nov. 1, requiring all homeless shelters in the city to offer shelter when temperatures drop to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to anyone who may need it. A growing group of Georgetown students are trying to help however they can.

The Interagency Council estimates a 16 percent increase in need from last year, expecting 840 homeless families, 1,597 individual men, and 479 women to actively seek shelter. Meanwhile, there are just 409 units at D.C. General and no money in the federal budget for hotel rooms. According to Kate Coventry of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, who was cited in an article from DCist, there is a $11.4 million shortfall in the family shelter budget, partly because the Department of Homeland Security lacks federal carryover funding, unlike in previous years.

City officials projected that 509 families would need shelter when hypothermia season began last year, but 723 families ended up needing assistance, according to The Washington Post. Some families had to be sent to motels in Maryland, while others were sent to recreation centers, a practice that was later declared illegal.

“At this point, we are waiting for a little more detail from the Department of Human Services to understand how they’re actually going to create overflow capacities for families who have greatest risk on hypothermic sites,” said Maggie Riden, executive director of the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates. “We’re also waiting for D.C. Council, the mayor, and city administrators to find out if they are going to find money to fund it. And right now, where that money is coming from is very unclear.”

Riden further said that the ICH and the Human Services have moved forward to better estimate the demand. “The process for developing estimates wasn’t always great. We have a stronger system in place now, but we still need to figure out how we can also prevent homelessness and or move families quickly into affordable housing,” said Riden.

Hypothermia Outreach Team at Georgetown University, founded last year, coordinates student volunteers during hypothermia seasons on as-needed basis to help mentally-ill and homeless individuals in the neighborhood. HOT developed under the Homeless Outreach Program, also founded last year under the Center for Social Justice to conduct local street outreach.

Ray Shiu, associate director of Center of Student Justice, said that HOT volunteers are trained by the Georgetown Ministry Center, a nonprofit organization assisting service-resistant, homeless men and women in Georgetown. “When a hypothermia alert is issued by the D.C. government, available volunteers will meet at CSJ to walk an outreach route,” Shiu wrote in an email to the Voice. “The goal is to encourage the men and women experiencing homelessness to utilize emergency shelters, use the various warming stations around the neighborhood, and to provide emergency supplies such as extra blankets, gloves, hats, and hand warmers. We’ll have these supplies in stock at CSJ.

“Last year, in our smaller pilot, we had about 25 volunteers from the university, but in this year’s outreach, we have 280 students, staff, and faculty registered thus far,” wrote Shiu. “I expect we will have a volunteer team of [at least] around 90 in the end. I believe it speaks a great deal about the growing interest of our community coming together to be part of this growing issue.”

A first time participant of HOT, Anita Joshi, (SFS ‘15), said, “I think it’s really cool that the ministry targets a specific population, like the single adults, because when I walk around Georgetown, that’s who I mainly see, not families. It’s such a huge issue in D.C., so this seems like a great way to address the problem.”

The Director of Community Outreach and Communications of GMC, Stephanie Chan, responded to the changes in the ICH’s winter plan. “I think the biggest concern with homeless in D.C. has been with families. The number of people who are chronically homeless in Georgetown and Foggy Bottom are usually stable,” she said. According to Chan, HOT volunteers did not encounter an excess demand for street outreach last year.

ICH’s winter plan may not affect HOT’s service for the chronic homeless, but ICH still faces an overflow of homeless families who need shelter during this year’s hypothermia season.

Riden said, “I’m hoping even beyond the Winter Plan and beyond the ICH, the community can come together—business, private, citizens, and advocacy or provider groups—to start thinking about that.”

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