City homeless shelters overcrowded after last week’s icy winter blast

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Cameron Lancaster | Assistant Photo Editor

Nearly 10 inches of snow blanketed D.C. in mid-February, one of three snow days this semester.

D.C.’s most brutal winter in recent history has forced city organizations to scramble as thousands of homeless residents prepare for longer stays in shelters.

Homeless shelters were full across the city last week, with more than than 4,000 people staying in city-funded shelters Wednesday night alone after more than 10 inches of snow covered D.C.

This winter has brought the coldest temperatures in decades and piled on about 15 inches of snow so far – already five times greater than last winter’s total.

Catholic Charities, which runs 13 shelters with about 2,000 beds across the city, dispatched vans across the city on Wednesday and Thursday night to pick up homeless residents and bring them to city-funded shelters.

Erik Salmi, a spokesman for Catholic Charities, said under D.C. law, homeless residents must be placed in shelter if a hypothermia warning is in effect.

“The staff will first try to get the client to agree to be transported to another shelter with open bed spots, but if they would rather stay, the staff will make whatever accommodations they can,” Salmi said Friday.

About 873 children were brought to motels Wednesday night as part of Mayor Vincent Gray’s homelessness protection efforts.

D.C. Central Kitchen, located just blocks away from the Capitol building on 2nd Street NW, made 2,000 extra “emergency meals” for its visitors, from sandwiches to trail mix to bags of fruit, volunteering manager Petula George-Redd said. She said many of the volunteers were college students.

Kurt Runge, the advocacy director at the Foggy Bottom organization Miriam’s Kitchen, said the soup kitchen had a quieter day than normal as the icy sidewalks and sloppy streets kept many of the city’s most vulnerable residents from heading out in the storm.

Runge said several volunteers stayed overnight at Miriam’s on Wednesday because of the weather, adding that other volunteer groups checked in with local police during snowstorms to make sure residents who don’t stay in shelters are safe throughout the night.

“We make sure people have warm clothes and warm blankets, and encourage them to be indoors,” Runge said.

St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, which provides food and support for the homeless through its Dupont Circle-based program Charlie’s Place, also saw lower numbers on Thursday because of the snow, development coordinator Tom Cross noted.

“They’re finding ways to stay inside more, as opposed to going outside, sleeping outside and panhandling outside, and moving from neighborhood to neighborhood,” Cross said.

The snowy weather also created obstacles for pedestrians. GW Hospital treated about 20 people for broken wrists Thursday after the previous day’s snow and ice made sidewalks treacherous.

Junior Markus Batchelor was one of about 150 volunteers citywide who stepped up to help neighbors shovel their walkways as part of the city-sponsored D.C. Citizen Snow Team.

“There’s a lot of places across the country where seniors are out of luck in the snow,” Batchelor said. “The whole point of the program is to make sure they’re safe coming in and out of their homes.”

A total of 6,865 homeless people lived in the District last year, almost a 30 percent increase from the number in 2007, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which officials said can also be a result of strengthened efforts to locate and record homeless residents.

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