DC Heat Wave Poses Great Risk to Homeless Residents: What You Can Do To Help

We’re smack in the middle of summer, and it is dangerously hot outside. Today’s highs are in the upper 90s and temperatures are expected to stay that high all week.

We advise everyone to take care of themselves by drinking plenty of water, avoiding dehydrating beverages that contain alcohol, staying in the shade when you have to be outside, and of course avoiding strenuous outdoor activities.

For those who are homeless, the risk of heat related illness and death is far too real because of prolonged exposure to the outdoors. In the District, when temperatures rise above 95 degrees (factoring in the heat index), the District government is obligated to open severe weather “hyperthermia shelters” which are public or private buildings used as cooling centers for those individuals or families who are homeless and cannot access other shelter. Under the law, these hyperthermia shelters must include: food and clothing and other supportive services, or information about where to obtain basic needs and services;  24 hour access to properly functioning toilet facilities; cool water; and properly functioning cooling systems.

Unfortunately, the term “hyperthermia shelter” does not include overnight shelters, which means that homeless individuals and families do not have a right to beds overnight unless the heat index is expected to stay above 95 degrees all night. This means that if the temperature falls to 94 degrees with the heat index, a homeless person or family can be told to leave the cooling center and must find somewhere else to sleep for the rest of the night.

For now, if you see someone outside who looks like they need assistance finding a hyperthermia shelter or cooling center, call the District’s shelter hotline at 1-800-535-7252 to find the cooling center closest to them. Our friends at Miriam’s Kitchen have shared a list of the various cooling centers provided by the District here. You might also consider carrying an extra bottle or two of water with you to offer to folks out on the street.

Certainly, though, if you see someone outside experiencing a heat emergency, please call 911 to get them immediate assistance. Be on the lookout for the following signs of heat stroke:

  • headache
  • nausea, clamminess, chills
  • dizziness, periods of faintness
  • dry, hot skin
  • high body temperatures
  • rapid breathing
  • anxiety, listlessness
  • severe muscle pain
  • unconsciousness

Please take the time to program the shelter hotline number in your phone (1-800-535-7252); it could help you save a life this summer. We hope everyone stays safe and hydrated.

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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