The arrival of winter-like weather, coupled with the poor economy and cuts in basic government supports, has raised fears of officials of area governments and charities that they will not be able to help the growing number of homeless people seeking shelter.
Their response to these worries ranges from spending thousands more dollars for emergency housing to crossing their fingers and hoping people won't freeze to death.
"It's so hard to say no but we've turned a lot away so far this year," said Monica Cassidy, a volunteer worker at the St. Francis Hospitality House, a project of the Catholic Worker Movement in Washington. "There is a homeless problem of enormous proportions."
Her concern is echoed by the Rev. John Steinbruck, pastor of Luther Place Church in downtown Washington, whose temporary women's shelter was filled within a matter of days of its Oct. 15 opening: "We're all overloaded and there's no relief, night after night, day after day."
In the District, despite the fact the city has doubled the number of beds for families this year by housing 65 families in the Pitts Hotel and using 150 rooms in the Capital City Inn, there is no more space for single women, said Jerry Coursey, director of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless. "There's a growing realization that the problem is larger than we ever thought."
The coalition is expecting word later this month on its plan to operate some city-owned properties as shelters this winter, he said.
The city's shelters, public and private, housed an average of 417 men each night in October, an increase of 20 from the year before. The number of homeless women given shelter, swollen by ex-patients of mental hospitals, increased to 160 a night last month, 60 more than last October.
In an attempt to meet the growing demand for shelter in its area, the Alexandria City Council voted unanimously last month to provide $18,000 to purchase motel and hotel space this winter when the three church-run shelters there are full. In the past, the city government had not involved itself in emergency shelter aid.
The change was prompted by pleas from a group of church and charity leaders who said they were faced with overwhelming demands for help.
For example, at ALIVE, a five-room house that is one of three church-run shelters in Alexandria, volunteers said they have been so preoccupied with meeting emergency food requests that have been able to give little thought to expanding the always-full facility.
In Prince George's County, since there are no shelters for them, homeless men usually are driven or given taxi fare into Washington to use a city or church-run shelter.
If the city's frequently full shelters are overloaded this winter, the county may be forced to find other arrangements for them, said Louis Halter, supervisor of emergency shelter services. But, he noted, "Prince George's county neighborhoods haven't been willing to allow a shelter in their community." So far there are no contingency plans, he said.
The county currently spends $20,000 a month to shelter about 25 families in 18 motels and several churches, Halter said, a rate that stayed steady this year even through the summer months, traditionally a time of lower demand.
He noted that the federal cuts in welfare and food stamp assistance have brought many new users to his office's roommate referral service, which matches people who need to share rent. "A mother and child on public assistance can't afford a whole apartment," he said of the uncounted, but growing number of unrelated groups in the county who are doubling up in apartments and houses.
In Arlington County, zoning has just been approved for a new, 11-bed shelter for families, replacing the county's only homeless shelter, an eight-bed facility run by ACTS, the Arlington Committee for Temporary Shelter. The $100,000 purchase price came through a year-old federal grant from the Arlington Community Development Commission.
The expansion can't come soon enough for shelter director Sheila Wolfe, who has been using the floor for people to sleep on for the last two months. "I'm seeing an increase in a different type of client," she said. "It's more the middle-class person who is jobless. We're getting people coming here from Pennsylvania when a steel mill is closed."
Arlington also gives homeless men bus tickets for transportation to Christ House Shelter in Alexandria or one of the Washington shelters.
In both Montgomery and Fairfax counties, officials are budgeting more money to handle the growing number of people seeking shelter.
In the fiscal year ending in June, Montgomery aided 1,329 people in obtaining emergency housing, up from 993 the year before, said Tom Forbes, who is in charge of emergency shelter for the Department of Social Services.
That forced a $60,0891 jump in county expenditures, for a total of $287,796. The increase is expected to continue this year, he said, because "the greater number of layoffs are shown directly in the inability to pay rents." The county does not operate shelters, but pays for motel space and other temporary housing.
In Fairfax County, the growing demand for shelter is expected to boost the expense to taxpayers by some $60,000, said Donna Foster, assistant director for adult and family services in the Department of Social Services.
Last year, the county spent $142,000 to house people once the two church-run shelters in the county were filled. "We might spend over $200,000 this year because the need seems to be there," said Foster. "More people are presenting themselves to us with no place to live. We hear occasionally from individuals who have spent the night in their cars."
Shelter House Inc., a nine-month-old shelter at Baileys Crossroads and one of two in the county, reports that its 16 beds are filled nightly. It is trying to buy several apartments, said director Jane Depler. "The caseloads have doubled and we're having to turn people away every day. Everyone's dreading the first snows."