Thursday, January 23, 2014

Explainer: How Catholic Charities fits into serving those who are homeless in DC on cold nights

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Since New Year’s, our region has been hit with some bitterly cold temperatures. As the cold descends, we receive calls, emails, tweets and more from concerned neighbors asking about those who are homeless.
So here’s a quick breakdown of how the system works on the dangerously cold nights for single adults. To simplify this post, we’ll focus on services available in the District of Columbia, where 60 percent of the region’s homeless currently reside – some 6,865 people according to the 2013 Point in Time Survey (really interesting reading if you are inclined). We’ll also focus on Catholic Charities role in the city’s services to the homeless, but remember we’re part of a team of public-private partners who provide this critical care.

So, are we able to get everyone (who wants to be there) inside on a really, really cold night? Yes!

Right to Shelter

The District of Columbia is one of the few jurisdictions anywhere in the country that guarantees by law that when temperatures drop to hypothermic levels, you have a right to be inside – no matter what. This includes temperatures that may be above freezing if it accounts for wind chill or rain.

     Catholic Charities operates five low-barrier shelters that operate year-round – three serving men and two serving women. These shelters are for any single adult over the age of 18. They are welcomed in on a first come, first serve basis on a typical night.

On a night when the temperature drops to near or below freezing, the city issues a  “hypothermia alert” which sets into motion several steps for us. We open up six hypothermia sites that provide extra cots. Several of our year-round shelters are able to expand with cots the number of beds provided. Last Tuesday, Jan. 21, when the region was hit hard with snow, we had 1,217 men and women come in from the cold.

The United Planning Organization operates the DC Shelter Hotline (202-399-7093) and a network of shelter vans and buses that help move folks from central locations to shelters, as well as to open bed spots when one shelter fills up. However, if all of the allocated beds in the system are full, no one is turned away.

Life at the Shelter
Our 801 East Men's Low Barrier Shelter during warmer days.

The vans and buses operated by the United Planning Organization (UPO) check areas of the city for men and women who are sleeping outside, as well as deliver them to our shelters. All of this takes place with funding from the District of Columbia and management by The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.

Upon entering our low-barrier shelters, staff provide a bed, clean sheets, access to a hot shower and a hot meal. We have case managers onsite who help residents with any number of issues, including enrolling in more stable, long-term programs or housing or reconnecting with family. On days when the weather is dangerously cold during the day, many shelters are able to stay open for 24-hours straight, instead of in 12-hour shifts.

A quick tour on a recent cold night at our New York Avenue Men's Shelter shows the range of needs staff address to make each resident comfortable -- one man waited patiently to see the doctor at the Unity Health Care Clinic, another was directed to the donated clothing room for a suit he could wear to church on Sunday, and another was looking for help with keeping up with vital health medicine. 

Having more people in a shelter than normal provides challenges, but also unique opportunities to engage with those who have been living outside for a long time, away from services and support. Some of the great volunteer efforts at Catholic Charities such as Cup of Joe breakfast bags and the annual Coat Drive help staff provide additional food and warmth, as well as remind the clients that many people care about them. We also have been blessed recently with volunteers in our Shelter Hospitality Program, who provide extra hands to get tasks such as serving food or handing out sheets and blankets done. This allows our staff to spend more time working with clients and trying to help them progress out of the shelter system -- ultimately the goal of our programs.

Okay, now that you're up to speed, it's time to get involved:

Make a donation to our shelter programs – the extra funds allow staff to meet more needs for the clients.
Host a Cup of Joe session to fill bags – we need to make 30,000 bags every month to ensure everyone gets breakfast every day. Perfect for large groups!