The severe cold snap, blamed for exposure deaths of two men on Washington streets in recent days, has filled the city's emergency shelters for the homeless to capacity, officials said yesterday.
But Audrey Rowe, acting commissioner of social services, vowed that no one will be denied shelter, even if it means the District government must pay to house them in private motels. Such action has not been necessary this winter, Rowe said, but it remains a possibility because the bitter cold that has gripped the city seems likely to abate only slightly the next few days.
"The pattern is the same as last year," Rowe said yesterday. "The shelters start filling up around mid-November and they're full pretty constantly until the end of April when the weather starts getting nice."
Officials acknowledged that the unusual cold last week has severely taxed the capacity of the city's two main shelters for homeless men, the old Blair and Pierce schools in Northeast Washington, where all beds have been filled within a half-hour after the doors open in the evening.
Men who arrive too late at either of the 130-bed shelters are sent to the Gospel Mission in Shaw, which has been able to handle the overflow, officials said. But one worker said he hears some homeless men do not take advantage of the referral and try to fend for themselves.
"A lot of these men just walk around the city until both the schools are closed," said Byron Morgan, a supervisor at the Blair shelter at 611 I St. NE. "They come by and see we're full, and then they just go out and look for a (heating) grate to sleep on."
At midday last Saturday, the body of William Lee Pender, apparently in his 30's, was found on the steps of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church at 1313 New York Ave. NW. Early Christmas morning, Willie Brass, 52, was found semiconscious with a body temperature of 74 degrees in the 1300 block of H Street NE and later died. Both men apparently died of exposure, the D.C. Medical Examiner's office reported.
Meanwhile authorities said last night they were investigating the possibility that a third man, found yesterday on Mount Olivet Road, was also an exposure victim. An autopsy has not been completed, and the man's identity could not be learned.
Mayor Marion Barry attempted earlier this year to close the men's shelters because of the city's budget crisis. But the city agreed to keep the facilities open after being challenged in court and in protest action by the Community for Creative Non-Violence, a self-proclaimed advocacy group for the homeless.
Justin Brown of CCNV charged yesterday that the city's shelter network is "grossly inadequatae," citing the two recent deaths. He charged that better management of the operation could cut costs substantially and free money to expand the system's capacity.
"Clearly, the city has a responsibility to house these people," Brown said. "They're not doing that now."
In addition to the men's shelters at Blair and Pierce schools, Rowe said, the city also contracts with the House of Ruth, a private organization, to provide shelter for homeless women, and also maintains shelter for homeless families.
But one of the family shelters, on Hartford Street SE, was closed this year because of budget cuts. Another the Parkside Hotel at 13th and I Streets NW, is largely empty because of extensive repairs the city began several months ago to bring the building up to minimum fire safety standards.
In another weather development, an unidentified man and woman were found dead last night in Great Falls in a camper in which they had used a hibachi for heating. Fairfax County police tentatively attributed the deaths to carbon monoxide poisoning.
On Thursday, Washington experienced its coldest Christmas in 108 years, with a low temperatuare of 12 degrees. The Weather Service forecast called for a low of 18 to 23 degrees this morning and more of the same tonight, with one addition -- a 10 percent chance of snow or sleet.