“As cold as the surface of Mars”. Those were truly chilling words to read about the temperatures sweeping North America the past few days. Exposure to such cold is downright dangerous. Studies estimate that approximately 28,000 deaths in the USA- more than 1% of all deaths- occur each year due to hypothermia and other exposure-related causes; many are of homeless people.
While Washington D.C’s Dupont Circle residents who lost power on tuesday got a little taste of what its like to be without heat in such conditions, that’s nothing to compare with our fellow city residents on the streets. For those in the area who are used to greeting D.C’s homeless, you may have noticed fewer familiar faces in the past days. That’s not because there are actually fewer homeless- in fact, D.C. has a growing homelessness crisis. Where do the homeless when its cold? Could the Affordable Housing initiative and the D.C 2024 Olympic bid make a difference to the growing homeless crisis?
Where do the homeless go when it’s cold?
A few cities in the US – including D.C and New York- have adopted the right to shelter- meaning that legally, they must provide shelter to all those who need and want it. D.C enacted the right-to-shelter policy in 1988 after seven homeless people froze to death.
In the District, some homeless are already in long-term programs, and return to their shelters at night. Programs like the Salvation Army’s Grate Patrol, which delivers hot meals and drinks across the city to the homeless and at risk, reports serving fewer people during the very coldest days, as even those who usually prefer to sleep on the street chose to take refuge in one of the city’s ‘low barrier and hypothermia’ shelters. And for those who are still out there, D.C. has several hotlines such as the D.C. Government’s Shelter Hotline, or the Hypothermia Hotline whose staff make round-the-clock patrols offering transport and a place in a shelter. The patrols check throughout the night on those who chose to stay outside, ensuring that they are not endangering themselves and providing them with blankets, clothing, and hot drinks.
Rising rents and rising homelessness in the Nation’s Capital
The sad fact though is that homelessness in D.C is a growing problem. Last January, there were 7748 homeless in the District, a 12.9% increase on the previous year. The lack of affordable housing is largely to blame. Many lower-income neighborhoods are being gentrified as people choose to stay, move to or move back to D.C. The result is that rents have been rising across the city. Families are particularly susceptible as they often can’t be accommodated with family or friends. There were more than 700 families at the main D.C emergency shelter and at hotels (not talking about the Hilton here) across the city last February. The Public Housing Authority is severely over-stretched with its 5% budget cut due to the 2013 sequester. The National Coalition for the Homeless noted that D.C’s housing authority closed its Section 8 voucher wait list which had 70,00 names on it in April 2013 and has not re-opened since. Many of these families are not jobless – they have jobs where they work long hours, just to receive a poverty level income, and are still unable to make rent payments when they leave the affordable housing program initiated under Mayor Gray.
D.C Olympic Games 2024!: A solution for DC’s poor and homeless?
Could an ‘economic lift’ from hosting the Olympic games help D.C’s poorest residents? ‘Not likely’ say some critics, who point to the experience in Atlanta and in other cities across the world, where the poor and homeless have been particularly vulnerable to being moved-on and out of the city and where rising rents have increased housing prices. pushing more low-income families into homelessness. The DC bid for the 2024 Olympics will certainly have an impact on affordable housing in the city- on the one hand there’s the very real likelihood of the displacement of the poor and the planned destruction of a shelter, and on the other the construction of accommodation for athletes that could be turned into affordable housing. You can read a full analysis here. With the right type of approach though, one which explicitly prioritizes jobs and housing for its low-income and at-risk residents and seeks to tackle homelessness, DC could buck the negative Olympic city trend.
So when you bed down tonight under your warm covers, think of those who are sleeping outside, on the floors at friends’ houses, or in over-crowded shelters across the city, and don’t forget to drop a note to Muriel!