Tuesday, January 15, 2013

This Jeep Has Heart

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George Jones (left) works with hypothermia staff
Mark Beeson to load blankets in the Jeep
to distribute at hypothermia shelters
Guest Post by George Jones
Hypothermia Shelter Coordinator

It’s called our “Hypothermia Jeep” – a weathered old Jeep Cherokee that has crisscrossed the District literally thousands of times, shuttling supplies and staff to Catholic Charities shelters during the harshest of winter conditions.

That includes the blizzard of 2010 (called Snowmageddon). It includes every very cold night since the Jeep joined my team in 2004. And though the Hypothermia Jeep just hit its 200,000 mile marker, it’ll keep trucking on this winter, helping to ensure the safety of our homeless neighbors on nights when it’s just not safe to sleep outside.

When temperatures are near or below freezing, DC city government issues a “hypothermia alert.” This allows extra shelters to open across the city to make sure there are enough beds to accommodate every single homeless man and woman.

Now loaded with supplies, the Hypothermia Jeep
can make its rounds to shelters
For Catholic Charities, the hypothermia alert means we open five extra shelters, usually in a church basement or community center, with beds for 170 people, and four of our shelters that run year-round put out extra cots to make sure we can keep as many people as possible safe from harsh winter weather. We also bring in extra staff.

When this happens, I rely on the Jeep to get me from shelter to shelter, from northwest to southeast DC, making sure each site has all it needs to make it through the night safely and as comfortably as possible. I check in at each of these shelters to replenish cleaning supplies, kitchen supplies, and toiletries. I collect nightly reports. I replace broken cots, and assess what supplies need to be ordered, or delivered, or replenished.  

The Jeep is such a blessing on those nights. It has four-wheel drive, plus it can hold four passengers, plus cargo. Before the Jeep I was doing my rounds on public transportation, and Chapman Todd, the Director of Housing at the time and still a great friend, secured the Jeep to make things easier.

Some shelters such as Adam's Place (shown above)
put out extra cots and hire extra staff to work during
severe weather alerts - ensuring no one needs to
sleep outside in dangerous conditions.
The Jeep has never quit, even during Snowpacalypse. One of the windows shattered from the weight of the heavy snow, but we kept going. We’d ask people we saw out in the cold if they wanted a ride to a shelter with us, people we’d see lying in gas stations and elsewhere.

I also used to the Jeep to ferry our staff between their homes and our shelters. Many worked long shifts during the blizzard, staying up to two days straight in the shelter, so our Jeep helped me get them home when the roadways were difficult and public transportation was down.

Believe me, especially after that winter, all my trust is in our Hypothermia Jeep. I’ve spent a lot of long, lonely nights in the driver seat when there is literally no one else on the road, and all I see is flakes. But it’s important to be out there. It can really be bitter out, and literally dangerous, for some of the people we serve who might be elderly, or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or suffering from mental and/or physical illnesses. We need to make sure they have a safe, warm place to sleep.

The work changes you. I remember one day, a woman approached me on in front of the Verizon Center. She was all dressed up in a silk suit, her hair was all done, and she said, “Mr. Jones? Do you recognize me?” And I had to say that I didn’t. “I used to stay at one of your shelters,” she said. “And I just want you to know, I don’t smoke crack anymore.” At times when I ask myself why I do this, especially those late nights in bad weather, I remember her.

Now, last winter was one of the softest things we’ve ever had here in DC. The hypothermia alert was active only 67 nights the whole season, and normally we see over 70 alerts by mid-January. This winter, people are saying it’s going to be hard, but I think they just mean normal. For us working at the city’s homeless shelters, that means between 90 and 110 hypothermia shelters for the season.

One thing for sure, the Hypothermia Jeep will be in action. We just recently had it overhauled so that it can continue helping us, and serving those in need, for many winters to come. 

  • Don't let anyone risk a frigid night's sleep on the streets. Call the DC Shelter Hotline if you see someone at risk:1-800-535-7252. Your call could save a life!
  • Donations to our Housing Programs (including Hypothermia Shelters) can be made online here.
  • Your family, classroom, or office can help make a shelter a home for our clients. Just a few ideas: Write birthday cards, make welcome baskets, or decorate for a holiday! Learn more about adopting a shelter here.