Since Feb. 1, D.C. Alert has issued 27 hypothermia alerts urging residents to stay indoors. For the approximately 7,000 individuals that make up D.C.’s homeless population, this past winter has been unforgiving.
As one of the few cities in the United States with a right-to-shelter policy in place on freezing nights, D.C. has turned to alternate forms of shelter, including churches and community centers, to house its increasingly large homeless population has seen a 135 percent increase this winter, among other reasons, because of a sharp decrease in the District’s affordable housing units.
“People are more aware of the large homeless population just because it’s been so brutally cold. … It’s the coldest winter in more than 20 years,” said Gunther Stern, executive director of the Georgetown Ministry Center, which operates a homeless shelter from November to March.
In response to the overflow, Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration has resorted to renting motel rooms in the District and nearby Maryland to accommodate the overflow of homeless individuals.
Sarah Baran (COL ’14), a program assistant at the GMC founded in 1987 by the university in partnership with the Georgetown Clergy Association, has noticed an increase in homeless people coming into the shelter this winter.
“They are getting more people because it’s been so cold and because of the snow. It’s been hard on them to get more resources and accommodate the increased number,” Baran said.
James Gadea (SFS ’16), a coordinator with the Mobile Soup Kitchen, which takes soup and other foods to parks in D.C., has also noticed an increase in the District’s homeless population in recent months.
“Franklin Park is completely full on the weekends,” Gadea said. “All kinds of people come. It’s not just the homeless people that you would expect to see. There are people in suits there that come and get food as well. … The diversity of the homeless population and the number specifically at Franklin Park is tremendous.”
D.C.’s homeless population has seen a 9.3 percent increase since 2008 to 7,000 individuals, a number not seen since the 1980s, according to the Washington Post. About half of this population receives absolutely no income, according to the nonprofit organization Thrive D.C.
With the Democratic mayoral primary April 1, the issue of homelessness has been a more than frequent buzzword for D.C. politicians in recent weeks. Former events promoter and longshot mayoral candidate Carlos Allen outlined the importance of incorporating compassion into the city’s homeless agenda in a mayoral debate Feb. 26.
“I was homeless once in this city. I know what it’s like to get back on your feet. What is missing is communication between the city and those people out on the street to let them know that there are resources available to help them move forward in their lives. It’s all about bringing compassion back to this city,” Allen said.
Local politician Carolyn Cook had a different suggestion.
Cook, a commissioner for the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Ward 4, urged the government to develop a program providing seasonal jobs like raking leaves or shoveling snow as a source of income for the homeless but received little response last year.
“It would be great for the District government to consider a plan like hiring seasonal employees. They are putting people who might be long-term unemployed into jobs,” Cook said. “They have sort of fallen through the cracks not having a home or stability in their lives with not having an income.”
The proposal was inspired by a conversation Cook overheard at a local community center for the elderly where neighbors were discussing the difficulty and danger of shoveling their own sidewalks, which is required under D.C. law. Cook also interacted with homeless people looking for warmth at the community center and seized upon the opportunity to simultaneously help both populations in need.
“The District needs to weigh at what point are people trying to increase revenue [through fines] versus putting people’s lives in danger,” Cook said. “It would be great to hire homeless people to earn some money, feel like they are contributing and see the results of their efforts.”
According to Stern, Cook’s proposal was not new to the District.
“A lot of homeless people, when it snows, head out and offer to shovel people’s homes for money,” Stern said. “They know there is a need for help and they can earn extra money.”
Cook expressed concern that resources are concentrated in certain areas of the District, leaving certain populations of homeless groups marginalized.
“We are focused on putting out the fires on the ones that need far more support than the system can provide,” Cook said. “Homeless in upper northwest, for example, have decided the homeless shelters are scary and overcrowded. For those folks, they have decided they don’t want to seek shelter, even when it’s super cold outside.”
According to Baran, Georgetown has an imperative to help the District’s homeless.
“Georgetown should do more in terms of homeless outreach. I know that the bookstore donated leftover clothes, and there are other ways like that to help out. We need partnerships to be formed and a call to action,” Baran said.