In the hypothermia ward of a D.C. homeless shelter, scores of men lie curled up in rickety cots, hiding under mounds of government-issued blankets. They are refugees of a harsh D.C. winter that has seen at least four people die of prolonged exposure to below-freezing temperatures.
“In the cold weather, it’s a difficult situation … you can become very, very sick and never know what caused it,” said Eugene Turbervilli, a 71-year-old homeless man who said he has been sleeping at the shelter for a couple of months.
Turbervilli, who has a thin, gray beard and a wind-hardened face, is one of the oldest men in the ward of the Community for Creative Nonviolence building. His home is a cafeteria-size room littered with the blankets, cigarettes and coffee cups of the more than 100 people who also sleep there in worn iron bunk beds.
The hypothermia ward occupies just one room of the center, a nondescript building on 2nd and D streets that is several blocks away from the Capitol building.
The Community for Creative Nonviolence sees the most occupants in February, traditionally the District’s coldest month, said James Burton, a director at the Community for Creative Nonviolence.
“In previous years, we would help about 5,000 people per (hypothermia) season,” Burton said. “Last year we reached around 21,000 cases.”
With six more weeks of winter, Burton said this year’s figures will be similar to last year’s.
The winter months usher in a time known as “Hypothermia Season,” a five-month span when the health of homeless people is most in jeopardy.
In January, a 50-year-old homeless man was found dead on top of a Ross Hall vent. While District officials have yet to confirm whether the man’s death was the result of hypothermia, fire department spokesman Alan Etter said the man most likely suffered from exposure to the cold.
To counter the effects of hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature, the District has a “Hypothermia Hotline” at1-800-535-7252. Upon being notified, the District will pick up a homeless person and deliver him or her at a shelter for the night.
“We think that the city has done a really good job getting the word out about the Hypothermia Hotline,” said Deborah Daniels, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Human Services.
The hotline, which is in its eighth year of existence, will operate throughout Hypothermia Season, which began Nov. 1 and ends March 31.
There are seven city-operated shelters that house homeless people during the winter, in addition to privately run facilities such as the Community for Creative Nonviolence.
Staffed by volunteers from Catholic charities and the Community Partnership for Prevention of Homelessness, there are several shelters that house only men, and one each for women and families.
Shelters, however, are only temporary, and often don’t meet the needs of the city’s homeless, said Scott Schenkelberg, executive director of Miriam’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen in the basement of the Western Presbyterian Church at 2401 Virginia Ave. N.W.
“More outreach and intervention programs are needed,” he said. “They need to be made more hospitable, more livable and be put in better neighborhoods.”
District officials said some of the city’s nicer neighborhoods will not allow shelters to be set up there, and that newly opened homeless facilities are cleaner and more hospitable.
“The city constantly struggles against the issue of where (shelters) should go,” said Cornell Chappelle, chief of Program Operations at the Community Partnership for Prevention of Homelessness.
“We do our best to save lives, to encourage them to come in from the cold,” said Daniels, of the D.C. Department of Health.
Burton said the Community for Creative Nonviolence, the largest homeless shelter in the country, does what it can to help people who require more than just a place to get warm.
“Many people come in here wanting medical service, but we just aren’t equipped for that,” he said.
The Community also takes the “overflow” that city-run shelters cannot accommodate.
“This is the largest shelter in the U.S., which should normally require millions of dollars a year to run,” Burton said. “We operate on only $100,000 per year.”
Burton said the city could be doing more to help the homeless.
“Their rhetoric is good,” said Burton, who pointed out that city-operated shelters don’t have the capacity to cope with the thousands of homeless in D.C.
The District’s newest shelter, located on New York Avenue in Northeast D.C., has 200 beds. Of the 8,026 shelter beds in the District, the Community for Creative Nonviolence accounts for 1,350 of them. There are about 1,422 people homeless people living on the streets and 6,840 in total, according to statistics from Community Partnership for Prevention of Homelessness.
Shelters such as the Community for Creative Nonviolence rely on volunteers to run their organization. Donald Johnson, a janitorial volunteer who lives in the D Street facility with his wife and daughter, said staying in the shelter during the winter has allowed him to start looking for a job and save some money.
“The whole concept is you preparing yourself so you don’t go back out on the street,” said Johnson, after collecting several blankets that were lying idly on the hypothermia ward’s dingy floor.
“Some people lay in here all winter, lying around. Some of them think about getting warm,” he continued. “They don’t think about finding a place to go. Some of us get it together.”