While it is commendable that Mayor Marion Barry has finally relented to making an effort to protect homeless citizens from freezing to death, his gesture falls short and is incredibly bogged down in bureaucratic red tape involving three levels of government intervention before a homeless person can be moved to a shelter.
Here is the mayor's scenario: The police identify homeless persons on the street. They then call the Hypothermia Hotline advising the staff there of the location. The hotline sends out an emergency shelter van and, if the homeless person is willing, the van will transport him to shelter.
If the homeless person is unwilling, however, the van contingent contacts the Crisis Resolution Unit, which will come to the site and evaluate the mental competency of the person. If he is declarempetent, he will receive a blanket and be allowed to remain on the street. If he is declared mentally incompetent, he will be taken to D.C. General Hospital for evaluation.
A body exposed to temperatures below 40 degrees, if not property clad or sheltered, is subject to hypothermia. In addition, alcohol, exhaustion, hunger, disease and illness -- all plights of the homeless -- exacerbate the rate of heat loss. The symptoms of hypothermia are weakness, slurred speech and drowsiness. The person also becomes detached, and mental alertness is lowered. All of the above point conclusively to the fact that a homeless person who will not willingly seek shelter in extremely cold weather is mentally incompetent to do so, and immediate transportation to proper shelter is necessary -- not a team of mental health experts called to the streets to do a psychiatric profile.
My legislation, "The Cold Weather Shelter for the Homeless Act of 1985," empowers the police to transport homeless people, either voluntarily or involuntarily, to adequate shelter when temperatures are below 25 degrees Fahrenheit, and upon arrival provide them with a medical examination and treatment if necessary. Unlike the mayor, I believe we need to "provide shelter first and ask questions later." Unfortunately, this legislation has been sitting in the D.C. Council's Judiciary Committee for a year.
The homeless of the District have been patient for years, waiting for their concerns to be addressed. I am, on the other hand, tired of wait- ing. In the year since I introduced my bill, there has been a large amount of community sup- port, but little or no movement within the warm corridors of city hall. The Judiciary Committee, chaired by Council member Wilhelmina Rolark, has made no move toward implementation of this leg
Partially because of this lack of discussion on the matter, the homeless continue to be at risk, and some have already succumbed. My program would not eradicate the problem of homelessness in the District. However, steps must be taken to ensure that homeless persons do not freeze to death while permanent solutions to homelessness are sought.
I am calling for the Council's Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on this legislation, work out the problems and begin the initial step toward the implementation of a program that is both workable and destined for success.