Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Michele Williams. She is chief of systems integration for the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. The story has been corrected.
As temperatures dropped below freezing this week, local governments and charities opened emergency shelters, sent out mobile teams with warm blankets, socks and hats, and brought in more staff to handle the flood of calls to hotlines to help homeless individuals and families with nowhere to go.
In the District, where soaring housing costs and crowded shelters have left people out on the streets, nearly 300 had called the D.C. Shelter Hotline between 8 a.m. Tuesday, when officials announced a hypothermia alert, and 8 a.m. Wednesday.
As of noon Wednesday, with low temperatures sticking around, the hypothermia alert was still in effect.
What that means in the District is that every homeless resident has a legal right to shelter. So, even if shelters are full, the D.C. government must put people up at emergency shelters, hotels or other accommodations.
The Shelter Hotline program, which has been running for more than two decades, doubled the number of staff answering calls, from two to four, and sent nine vans out Tuesday night and early Wednesday to give people rides to shelters and deliver comfort items to those who decided to stay on the streets.
“We look under bridges, in parks, in tunnels and in specific areas we know homeless people congregate that others wouldn’t see,” program manager Allison Smith said. “When it’s this cold out, we try to make sure that those who are most at risk are brought into shelter.”
Throughout the region, hypothermia season typically runs from Nov. 1 through March 31. That’s when most jurisdictions have emergency shelters and overflow space lined up, and shelters such as those in Fairfax County operate under a “no turn away” policy.
Michael Ferrell, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless, said the goal of local jurisdictions’ winter plans is to prevent deaths from hypothermia. A one-day census in January tallied about 11,500 homeless individuals, he said. Local governments are projecting about the same number of homeless this season.
In the District, which has about 60 percent of the region’s homeless population, 88 families went to the city’s family homeless service center Tuesday. Of those, 20 were new applicants seeking shelter, and 13 were deemed to have no safe place to go and were put in D.C. General, the old hospital building that serves as the city’s year-round family shelter.
As D.C. General has become more crowded in recent years, caseworkers have been taking action on the front end, working with potentially homeless people, their friends and their families to keep them out of shelters in the first place, said Michele Williams, chief of systems integration for the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.
The city is also trying to free up space more quickly at the shelter — where some families have stayed more than a year — by urging people to sign up for a new short-term-subsidy Rapid Re-Housing Program.
“I expected there would be more volume during this hypothermia alert,” Williams said. “To me, it says our efforts to help families develop a plan, to get out of homelessness, to become educated, to get a job, to think about their overall goals, is working.”
Still, the D.C. General shelter has remained so full that homeless people such as Catrice Haynesworth, who had been trying to get into the facility with her daughter since July, thought she would have to wait until a hypothermia alert to obtain a space.
Haynesworth testified recently before the D.C. Council, describing how she and her 11-year-old daughter, Christmas, have been sleeping in Union Station, in parks and under bridges, and spending all day at the homeless service center, waiting for a spot to open up.
Haynesworth was given a spot the day she testified, a few weeks ago, she said. “My case managers kept telling me D.C. General was overcrowded, that they didn’t have any room available,” she said. “If I hadn’t gone to the hearing, I would probably still be out there until it got too cold.”
The Prince George’s County hypothermia program, Warm Nights, began Nov. 2, offering extra capacity to emergency shelter services. It has also been conducting aggressive outreach to places where homeless people tend to gather.
Montgomery County opened its winter emergency shelters Nov. 1, adding 195 slots for homeless individuals.
Arlington County opened its emergency overnight shelter Nov. 1, and since then, it has housed 70 people every night, a county official said.
Last year, of the 151 days of hypothermia season, alerts for freezing temperatures were issued on 95 of them.
In the District, 463 families were placed in shelters and motels. Eighteen families in motels have yet to find a permanent place to stay.
Robert Samuels contributed to this report.