“DHS reports the Hypothermia Alert will remain on.” The message from the District of Columbia AlertDC system is casual, and for most students, it simply signifies another cold winter night.
For the Georgetown students and staff on the Hypothermia Outreach Team, however, the alert is a call to action. As the temperature dips below 32 degrees, the team ventures out into the streets of the Georgetown neighborhood to help people experiencing homelessness in the freezing cold find safety and shelter.
During last year’s polar vortex, two men experiencing homelessness in the Georgetown neighborhood almost died of hypothermia resulting from exposure. Both men were regular guests at the Georgetown Ministry Center, a local nonprofit organization that reaches out to the chronically homeless individuals in the neighborhood.
The experience inspired the organization to establish the outreach team in collaboration with Georgetown’s Center for Social Justice in January 2014.
While only around 25 students, faculty and staff volunteers were trained for HOT in its first year, which operated as a small pilot program, over 300 university volunteers trained this year to recognize signs and symptoms of hypothermia, distribute supplies and alert people of available shelters: 190 of these volunteers have actively participated on an outreach trip this year.
The CSJ sent out an email to the Georgetown community in October inviting volunteers to join.
”I believe the increase speaks a great deal about the growing interest of our community coming together to be part of this growing issue,” CSJ Associate Director Ray Shiu wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Whenever the temperature dips below freezing, or the city issues a hypothermia alert, some of the 190 active volunteers gather at the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service to load up backpacks with supplies including food, blankets and clothing. Over the course of the winter, during which nearly 70 hypothermia alerts were issued, the team provided aid 384 times to people experiencing homelessness in the Georgetown neighborhood.
The interventions carried out by the team have saved lives, according to GMC Communications Director Stephanie Chan.
“Twice this winter, HOT called 911 for individuals,” Chan said. “The second time they called 911, they found one of the guys who comes into our day center regularly unconscious on the side of the street, wearing only one shoe and a light jacket, and he was unresponsive, so they called 911 for him, and I think ended up saving his life.”
The homelessness crisis in D.C. reached critical levels this winter, as D.C. General, the city’s largest homeless shelter, quickly ran out of space, and the District was forced to contract with motels both in D.C. and Maryland to accommodate the demand for emergency shelter.
Despite the crisis, the interventions by the outreach team appeared to make a real difference in the Georgetown community, according to HOT Student Coordinator Sarah Sohlberg (NHS ’16).
“This year is the first year in a long time — I’ve heard from a lot of GMC staff that I’ve talked to — that we haven’t had a member of our community die of hypothermia,” Sohlberg said.
According to Chan, HOT’s presence in the community has also been well-received by the homeless population.
“I know, from speaking to a couple of the guests who come to our day center, they appreciate knowing that people are out there checking up on folks and making sure that people are okay,” Chan said. “Even the act of showing that we care has a big impact.”
Jamil Hashmi (COL ’16), a HOT leader, spoke about how the team is a unique program in the District.
“College students doing hypothermia outreach is not something that you see within homeless services,” Hashmi said. “HOT does a great job of finding a need in the community and taking what Georgetown can offer, which is volunteers, and meeting that need.”
While on the streets the night of Valentine’s Day, Gianna Maita (COL ’15), another HOT leader, and Hashmi came across a homeless woman who was unprepared for the weather, intoxicated, and who then started having a seizure. She expressed a wish not to go to the hospital but she consented to being examined by paramedics. Hashmi called 911 while Maita reassured the woman.
“I was always asking her if what I was doing was okay and if it would help her, that’s part of how I deal with respecting the dignity and the privacy of people sleeping outside,” Maita said. “Advocating for her needs was our role in that situation. … We are there to make sure everyone is safe and feels safe.”
Sohlberg said many of those experiencing homelessness in Georgetown are isolated because of mental illness or distrust of the shelter system.
“People will refuse to go to shelters because they have had such bad experiences with violence or getting their stuff stolen or general harassment,” Sohlberg said.
Such situations expose the homelessness crisis in Washington, D.C., which has exceeded shelter capacity for the past two winters and caused government officials to scramble for temporary solutions.
“We shouldn’t have a system that allows people to remain homeless for so long,” Maita said. “Chronic homelessness is something that could be stopped very easily by our city with the right kinds of affordable housing policies.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has pledged to create more affordable housing to solve the continued crisis. Her budget calls for an increase in the sales tax to fund services to end family homelessness by 2018 and all homelessness by 2025, also setting aside $100 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund.
Georgetown is increasingly involved with homelessness outreach efforts as well, with Sohlberg noting that the CSJ is expanding their programs in response to the increased interest among Georgetown students.
“A lot of students want to dispel the stereotypes and break down barriers that exist between Georgetown students and the homeless community of D.C.,” Sohlberg said.
That has led to the creation of the Homelessness Outreach Program, a new CSJ program currently coordinated by Sohlberg that links students with GMC to work on long-term projects with the organization. In fall 2015, a volunteer on staff will further formalize the program through a collaboration between the CSJ, the Office of Campus Ministry and the Georgetown Ministry Center, according to Shiu.
Despite the rapid growth of the homelessness outreach programs and the critical interventions of the Hypothermia Outreach Team, Maita called for structural changes to eliminate the necessity for the team in the first place.
“We wouldn’t have to send a bunch of 20-year-olds into the freezing cold if there weren’t people sleeping out in the freezing cold in the first place — if D.C. had the right support network to make sure that doesn’t happen to people,” Maita said.