Officials, homeless worry: is city prepared for winter?

Many of the homeless are gathering blankets and sleeping bags to keep warm this winter.

Many of the homeless are gathering blankets and sleeping bags to keep warm this winter.

By Christy Ulmet

The District of Columbia sounded a hypothermia alert at 7:00 PM on the first day of hypothermia season, Saturday, November 1. That night the temperature dropped below 40 degrees, with cloudy skies and gusting winds.

“That wind—it was serious. There were people out here who were freezing,” said a man who goes by the name Scooby, who was buried under blankets when the winds hit.

Some of the District’s high-ranking officials fear that the city is not prepared for what’s to come this winter, though representatives of the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) say they have worked to make sure a solid plan is in place.

Scooby lives in the Capitol Hill area in a community-like setting he’s organized with other homeless people. He explained that he has been preparing for cold weather by gathering blankets and sleeping bags for his community. His efforts proved successful when he needed to pull the blankets out the night of November 1.

One of the city’s hypothermia buses visited Scooby’s group late that night and handed out more wool blankets to the group, keeping them well stocked.

The DC native recommends that when it gets cold, people put trash bags on their legs and around their bodies before covering themselves with their blankets, as an extra barrier to block the wind.

Although the District’s Homeless Services Reform Act requires that the city provide shelter to homeless residents during freezing weather, Scooby said many people choose not to go to shelters.

He said many shelters become overcrowded in the winter, and that they are in poor condition, so people often choose not to use them.

Last winter, the ICH took a lot of heat for the condition of shelters in the District. Kristy Greenwalt, who chairs the ICH, explained that the system was overwhelmed by the number of people seeking shelter.

At their monthly meeting on October 22, members of the ICH reviewed last year’s reports and offered solutions to make sure last year’s problems are not repeated.

Greenwalt said the ICH has made arrangements with local churches and charities to ensure that overflow will not cause problems this year.

Dora Taylor, spokeswoman for the District’s Department of Human Services, said she is confident about preparedness this season, pointing out that the ICH has come up with a more realistic plan this year.

But not everybody is as optimistic about how this season will play out.

District Council member Jim Graham fears that this year’s situation will only be worse, citing that the 2014-2015 Winter Plan does not provide specific solutions for shelter overflow. Though this year’s plan only shows that 409 family shelter spaces are available, an estimated 840 families will be in need of emergency shelter at some point during the winter.

Graham is holding a Nov. 10 Human Services Committee hearing to discuss needed shelter capacity for families in the coming months.

Scooby said he and his friends are choosing to stay out of shelters unless absolutely necessary, though if shelter conditions improve, they may decide to spend a few nights inside. He has noticed that others have chosen this route as well. His advice for others is to find groups to stick close to during hypothermia season. Trying to weather the storm alone is never smart, he said.

He had some words for those fighting the cold on the streets this winter.

“I give my prayers and blessings to all the homeless out there. Don’t think because you think other people have forgotten you that everybody has forgotten you. Keep your head up; keep warm, keep safe. Keep on keepin’ on. There’s always a brighter day at the end of the tunnel,” Scooby said.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5 edition of Street Sense.

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