Hypothermia: Believe it or Not, it’s Just Around the Corner!

By Patty Mullahy Fugere, Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless Executive Director

As we trudge through these dog days of summer, it’s hard to imagine the mercury dropping below 80 for more than a twelve hour stretch at a time. Yet the calendar tells us that’s just around the corner…and so, too, do the preparations of DC’s Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) for hypothermia season 2010-2011.

This past winter will forever be memorable on a number of accounts: record snowfall; record school and government closures; record sales of Bengay for muscles aching from endless shoveling. Yet some of the most vivid memories for us are more akin to Haiti after the earthquake or New Orleans after Katrina: family after family stuffed into common areas, bunking down in hallways, doubled up with strangers. Last winter, the official shelter census, day-in and day-out, showed a system at, and often stretched well beyond, capacity. The worst offenses were at DC General Hospital Hypothermia Shelter for Families, where at one point 200 families were sheltered in space meant to accommodate only 135.

This is a situation no one cares to repeat in the months ahead. Under threat of litigation, DC’s Department of Human Services (DHS) eased the overcrowding at the end of last winter by moving families into transitional or permanent housing on an expedited basis. It has housed some additional families since that time, and plans to provide a stable home for even more parents and kids with new funding that should be available soon. It has been deeply involved in the ICH’s preparation of a Winter Plan for 2010 – 2011,  (Read Winter Plan Draft Here!) which by law must set forth the steps the local government will take and the resources it will make available to meet its obligation to shelter any homeless family or individual who seeks it during severe weather.

What does the draft Plan propose for the upcoming frigid weather? The draft presently being circulated provides for a ten percent increase in the number of beds available for individual men and women and a thirty percent increase in the number of units available for families. At this point, though, it lacks specificity with regard to some of its most important elements.

The ICH Operations and Logistics Committee will hold a public vetting of the plan on Thursday, August 19th (9:30 a.m. at N Street Village, 1333 N Street, NW), to get community input before finalizing the draft Winter Plan for presentation to the full ICH for approval in mid-September. All interested persons are welcome to attend.

Does the draft Plan go far enough to avoid a repeat of the pain and hardship endured by far too many families and individuals last year? According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s annual point-in-time survey, the number of homeless families in DC has increased by nearly one-third over the past two years. On August 16, (the most recent data we have), there were 129 families at DC General. On that date a year ago, there were only 34. As of August 8, there were 610 families on the waiting or pending list for emergency shelter. With a system already at capacity and need on the rise, can the District ensure that enough resources will be brought to bear to provide, in accordance with the law, safe and decent hypothermia shelter this coming winter for all who need it?

DHS is responding with an emphatic “yes,” and our every hope is that its prediction is accurate. We at the Legal Clinic will do all that we can to ensure that the District meets its legal and moral mandates to provide a decent place to take shelter from the elements this winter for any District resident who needs it.

There are 75 days until the November 1st start of hypothermia season. We will periodically report back to you on progress with the Winter Plan, funding for its programs and services, and the overall effort to protect the lives and well-being of District residents at a most difficult time.

Read the full Winter Plan Draft Here!

About Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless envisions a just and inclusive community for all residents of the District of Columbia, where housing is a human right and where every individual and family has equal access to the resources they need to thrive. Our mission is to use the law to make justice a reality for our neighbors who struggle with homelessness and poverty. Combining community lawyering and advocacy to achieve our clients’ goals, our expert staff and network of volunteer attorneys provide low barrier, comprehensive legal services at intake sites throughout the District of Columbia, helping our clients to access housing, shelter, and life-saving services. Rooted in the experiences of this client work, we effectively blend system reform efforts, policy advocacy, community education and client engagement to advocate for long term improvements in local and federal programs that serve the low- and no-income community.
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