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The Nation's Capital Prepares for Hypothermia Season

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As we walk by people bundled up in blankets in storefronts in the evening, we are reminded that nights are getting colder in the City and that, soon, these folks will be confronted with more serious decisions to get away from the life threatening cold on the streets of the District this winter. The Nation's Capital has its cycles as Congress and business activity ebbs and flows throughout the year, but the need on the street is always there.

The District is mandated, by law, to provide shelter to everyone who needs it between November 1st and March 31st, and, actually, before and after these two dates if the weather conditions require it. During this time period, recognized as the hypothermia season, a complex array of resources is deployed to meet the needs of the folks on the street, ranging from transportation to key locations in the City to providing emergency shelter where people can escape the cold and be safe. This vast network of services requires the cooperation of a remarkable team from the Department of Human Services with many organizations throughout the District.

The weather can sometimes test everybody as it did a couple of years ago when most of the streets were shut down during the infamous February 2010 "Snowmageddon." Even with the almost insurmountable amount of snow on the ground, a handful of DHS staff were still scouring neighborhoods to bring people inside.

Volunteers and advocates from the Coalition of Homeless and Housing Organizations (COHHO) closely monitor the weather conditions each day and keep track of hypothermia alerts and shelter capacity. This is strenuous work that requires an amazing amount of dedication. The DC Interagency Council on Homelessness relies on this data to develop the Winter Plan, a resource that compiles all necessary hypothermic resources and amounts to a pledge by the DC Government to deliver adequate services to the homeless community during the cold months.

News of hypothermia alerts is disseminated as swiftly as possible using all the modern means of communication at hand. There is often a feeling of apprehension among service providers and volunteers in the homeless services community as severe weather is announced. Rapid interventions on the street by skilled outreach workers make the difference between life and death during the winter.

This amazing winter service upsurge results in significantly safer conditions for our homeless neighbors. Sadly, though, people do die outside in Washington every winter. The District only counts folks actually found dead on the street as hypothermia victims. Other jurisdictions, like New York City, include people who die in hospitals after they are admitted due to severe exposure to the cold. Some of us at the Interagency Council on Homelessness have questioned this practice. Confidentiality governing hospital care was cited as the main reason for the limited criterion but it would be helpful to know how many people die in hospitals because they have been exposed to severe weather conditions in the city streets and parks.

It is important to understand that the Winter Plan is tied to the rest of the year-round service delivery. A telling example of this is the fact that the Department of Human Services does not admit families into the DC General shelter during the summer in order to save space for the start of the hypothermia season. The department is under strict budgetary constraints to stretch its resources and this practice makes it possible to balance its annual budget. As Councilmembers Graham and Brown recently remarked during a public appearance in front of the shelter, this means that, during the summer, families are spending nights at Union Station -- in their cars or wherever they can -- as the children get ready to go back to school.

Having worked with the dedicated staff at DHS for several years now, I know that they would like nothing more than to shelter these families during the summer. As constituents, we need to give them the means to do that by advocating for adequate levels of funding for homeless services each year. Remarkable efforts are being made in the private sector to house and find jobs for the homeless -- the recently announced Freddie Mac initiative to house families is a great example of this -- but local public dollars are short this year.

The projected budget shortfall for the Department of Human Services is 7 million dollars for FY 13, which starts October 1st.

Can we pledge to fill this gap by urging the DC Council to put the funds back in the DHS budget where it once was? Without it, the forecast is even bleaker than what I have just described - something like the 1980's and 90's tent city along New York Avenue just crossed my mind. We could be facing a District without shelter services from April 1st to October 31st next year. Will you help?