We hope everyone stayed safe and inside during the storm. As we all worry about the safety of our friends and families, deal with power outages, and wonder if the roads and public transit will have delays or get us to work on time, DC residents who are homeless have far graver concerns.
Without question, men, women, and children who are homeless are at increased risk of serious harm when a storm like Sandy hits. While the rest of us are concerned about flooding in our basements, these residents are worried about actual trees and power lines falling on them as they struggle to find a safe place to take shelter from the storm. Sleeping out on the street is dangerous on a night when the weather is calm and temperatures are mild; it is exponentially more life-threatening when faced with torrential rains, near freezing temperatures, and wind gusts of over 60 miles per hour.
Natural disasters have a way of bringing communities together. Neighbors who may have never spoken more than two words to each other beforehand will reach out to express concern about one another’s safety and offer help. Underlying that concern is the feeling that no one should have to live without basic needs like food and shelter being met. As a community, it’s time for us to channel this same empathy towards our homeless neighbors who essentially live under disaster conditions every day, without access to adequate food, shelter, or heat.
Under DC law, there is only a right to shelter under “severe weather conditions,” which are defined narrowly as “whenever the actual or forecasted temperature, including the wind chill factor or heat index, falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit or rises above 95 degrees Fahrenheit.” This means that there’s no right to shelter during a hurricane like Sandy unless the forecasted temperature is also freezing. If this doesn’t sound right to you, it’s because it isn’t.
For the last two days, low-barrier shelters and recreation centers were kept open during the day and through the night for those who needed shelter from the storm. Because forecasted temperatures were freezing both Monday and Tuesday, the city called a hypothermia alert at night, which means that any residents who needed shelter should have had access to it while the alert was on by calling the city’s shelter hotline at 1-800-535-7252. The city responded with an appropriate sense of urgency in assuring that everyone who needed it had access to a place that was safe and dry during the storm. That same sense of urgency should be carried into addressing the ongoing storm of poverty and lack of affordable housing in the District year-round.
Keeping DC residents safe when storms like Sandy catch us off-guard is one reason the District must always maintain adequate emergency shelter space, and why the right to shelter should be expanded past nights when the temperatures are freezing, as freezing temperatures are not the only threat to health and safety. But having sufficient emergency shelter isn’t enough. As a city, we must also prioritize the creation and preservation of long-term affordable housing so that no DC residents are ever forced to stay outside and be exposed to the elements during inclement weather or otherwise.
Today and going forward into the next several cold months, please take note of the shelter hotline number above, and if you see someone outside who needs shelter assistance, tell them about the hotline or help them call if they don’t have access to a phone. Operators of the hotline have information about shelters and day programs, and can also send out a hotline van to assist those who cannot safely get to a shelter location on their own or who need other resources, like food, medical care, or blankets.
That number again is 1-800-535-7252. Take a few seconds to program the number into your phone. It could help you save a life this winter.