Homeless men, women and children in the District need refuge from winter's freezing temperatures, but city officials and advocates for the homeless disagreed yesterday about where to place additional emergency shelter beds.
The city outlined a plan for the five-month hypothermia season during a hearing before the D.C. Council's Human Services Committee. The plan's call for new beds in Southeast drew passionate testimony from residents and concerns from council members.
"The District is still a city that relies on inadequate shelters as a first-line offense," said Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), chairman of the committee. "This year is an improvement, but it is still not an 'A' effort."
From Monday through March 31, city-funded shelters, churches and other locations will extend their hours and have additional beds when the temperature or wind chill falls to freezing.
Neil O. Albert, deputy mayor for children, youth, families and elder affairs, said the $1.6 million budget for city shelter services includes an increase of $400,000 over the fiscal 2004 budget. The number of emergency beds has been increased by 503, to 1,703.
The majority of the new beds, 300, will be in Southeast -- 150 for single men at the 801 East Building at St. Elizabeths Hospital; 75 beds for single women in renovated space on the grounds of D.C. General Hospital; and 75 for families at D. C. Village. Another 160 beds for single men will be available at the New York Avenue shelter in Northeast in an expansion of the second floor.
But a new report of shelter use by So Others Might Eat, a nonprofit group, states that the city's homeless are concentrated downtown and in the Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights areas -- pockets of the city not specifically addressed in the new city plan.
"How many people downtown and in Mount Pleasant want to come across the Anacostia River?" Allen asked Albert.
With property at a premium in the District, it has become increasingly difficult to find shelter for the homeless.
Albert said that the city will provide reliable shuttle buses from downtown to the Southeast shelters and added that the city's plan marked a new effort to challenge the long-held belief that homeless services are best tied to neighborhoods.
"Services built on shelters are a thing of the past," Albert said. "We're providing the services to get people back into society.
Since 2000, hypothermia, a medical condition that causes a person's core body temperature to drop below normal, has caused the deaths of at least nine adults in the District, forcing the city to examine its emergency shelter plans.
During last year's hypothermia season, the city declared a hypothermia alert on 102 days, or seven out of every ten. Hypothermia becomes life-threatening when a person's body temperature falls below 95 degrees.
During the hearing, council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) told Human Services Director Yvonne D. Gilchrist that he was troubled that the winter plan factored in the closure of Randall School, a homeless shelter for men in Southwest, which housed an average of 147 men last winter. The city is considering a plan to sell the shelter to the Corcoran Museum of Art and College of Art and Design for $6.2 million. Any sale would have to be approved by the council.
Graham asked Gilchrist to remove signs at the shelter stating that the building will close Wednesday and to attend the council hearing tomorrow, at which Randall's fate will be discussed.