Nation’s Capital Fighting Homeless Winter Deaths


For the homeless, winter can be a deadly time period. City officials and homeless advocates are trying to make sure no homeless people die because of the cold.

WASHINGTON— It’s that time of the year and many of us are thinking winter fun — skiing, snowboarding, sipping hot chocolate in front of a warm fireplace, sledding, snowball fights, or breaking out that fashionable gear we’ve been waiting to wear.

Not Cynthia Doresey.  She’s trying to figure out how to stay alive.

Doresey 58, is one of an estimated 12,000 homeless people living on the District’s streets.  For them, winter can mean losing toes and feet to frostbite or going to sleep and freezing to death.

Doresey, a D.C. native, has lived on the streets 30 years now, and she remembers the early days of realizing she had to cope with winter differently.

“I had to go where it’s warm at and sit down and plan and figure out, ‘Wow, what am I going to do this time, this year,’ she said while sitting with a group of homeless on the corner of 7th Street and Florida Ave in Northwest Washington. “I had to go sit down and plan how I’m gonna make it.”

About 700 people die each year from the biting temperatures of winter, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Last year, there were 10 reported deaths in D.C. from hypothermia and cold exposure, officials said.

As winter beckons, D.C. officials and homeless advocacy agencies are making provisions to house and feed one of the District’s most vulnerable populations. The group will implement what it calls the Winter Plan, an action blueprint created to deal with homelessness during the winter.

Washington officials said they are expecting fewer homeless people to be admitted into emergency shelters this year than in times past due to more year-round shelters made possible by the 2015 right to shelter law.

Photo by Sytonia Reid:  City officials said they are preparedto provide
one million meals and to shelterall of the District's homeless residents
when temperatures drop.


“In the past, we saw a surge in people entering the system during the winter time because D.C. is one of the few jurisdictions with a right to shelter law during a hypothermia alert. Now that families have access to shelter year-round, we’re seeing these numbers level off” said Dora Taylor spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS).

Under these provisions, homeless persons staying outdoors will be referred to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center and assigned to one of the shelters in the city, even if they would rather not be.

“We rely on our outreach workers to establish a relationship of trust so that during those times, we are able to go out and convince people to come inside for their greater good without having to force them to do so” Taylor said.

For many homeless persons, the harsh conditions of Winter intensifies the quest for survival as the search for basic necessities becomes more pressing.

“In Winter time, a person that lives out in this city in the streets, they’re going to find a way, they’re going to try harder to survive," Doresey said. "So, if they have to snatch shoes in one of those alleys to take your coat or your hat off your head, you think they won’t?”

The city anticipates an estimate of 2,000 beds that will be needed for single adult men and women at the peak of the winter, according to the fiscal year 2017 Winter Plan.

Central Union Mission, the District’s oldest homeless and social services agency, hosted its annual “HeArt and Sole” fundraiser in October to prepare for winter. Featu ring top-notch chefs, socialites and celebrities as well as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

HeArt and Sole raised enough money to provide one million hot meals to those in need. An estimated 170 people are expected to be sheltered at the mission this winter.

Throughout the year, the mission partners with So Others Might Eat (SOME), which provides affordable housing, employment and counseling to homeless clients. “There’s a lack of affordable housing in D.C., not just for families but for individuals as well,” said Rachel Green, the chief program officer for SOME. “We provide housing for homeless families and that’s defined as not literally being out on the street but also being in a programwhere you’re going to have to leave in the near future”

Thrive D.C. provides warm meals, showers and clothing items to homeless persons. The agency’s help allows homeless and financially challenged individuals to supplement their income so that other financial demands are met, said Alicia Horton, the organization’s executive director.

Thrive D.C.’s day program is available throughout the year and is especially helpful during the winter months when overnight shelters ask residents to leave first thing in the morning if the day’s forecast is above 32 degrees, Horton said.

“It can still be pretty cold at 33 degrees,” she said. “So we have a lot of clients who are battling these elements every day and we work hard to provide additional warm clothing and winter gear.”

The non-profit is also organizing three winter coat drives in November, December and January, she said.

Doresey said those who want to help, don’t have to necessarily do it through an agency. They can help an individual by “getting their number and becoming a friend to them,” she said. “You don’t have to give them money,” she said. “You can give soap, or toothpaste or a toothbrush. You can give them a pillow, and they’d probably appreciate it”

Residents are encouraged to donate warm clothes, volunteer at local organization and sign up forhyperthermia text alerts that can point people in the direction of food, shelter and safety.