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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 11/ 4/2009

Hypothermia season underway for D.C.'s homeless

By Ann Posegate

Wx and the city

* Cool end to work week: Full Forecast | Tomorrow: Our winter outlook *

Yvonne McKethan waits for a place to sleep at the John L. Young Catholic Charities Center in the District. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

Already this week, daylight saving time has vanished, nights have become longer and colder, and hypothermia season has officially begun in the District. Residents in the D.C. metro area -- including the homeless population and their providers -- have begun to feel the effects of the approaching winter.

Earlier this week, I spoke with a young man who has been homeless for six months and has yet to experience a winter on the streets. "Summer wasn't too bad," he said with a shrug. "But winter, you know ... " His voice trailed off as he turned his eyes away with an anxious look that required no further explanation.

With talk of a cold and snowy winter buzzing around and budget cuts to the D.C. Department of Human Services already in effect, what impact will this winter have on the region's 12,035 homeless people?

The main risk is hypothermia, which occurs when the core body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit due to exposure to cold or wet conditions. During cold weather, our bodies lose heat faster than they can produce it. Low temperatures can affect thinking and reduce physical strength. Some people -- especially those with mental illness or substance abuse -- are particularly vulnerable and might not even realize they are becoming hypothermic. Hypothermia usually occurs at extremely cold temperatures, but can occur at temperatures up to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit if a person is soaked in water, sweat or rain, or is chilled by the wind.

The District's Winter Plan aims to protect its homeless population (about 6,200 individuals, including 703 families and 1,426 children) from hypothermia by providing extra shelter, food and services throughout the cold season. The Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005 states that D.C. must provide hypothermia assistance whenever the actual or predicted temperature falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit or the wind chill factor creates the effect of 32 degrees or below. Surrounding jurisdictions have similar plans.

The plan states: "At times, a person at risk of becoming hypothermic will voluntarily accept help, but sometimes they must be helped involuntarily. Outreach workers are trained to recognize the symptoms of hypothermia and to take the appropriate action."

Rachael's Women's Center has been providing such street outreach, in addition to a day center for other direct services and a permanent supportive housing program to homeless women in the District for 30 years.

"The time change [from daylight saving time] is a marker for when our numbers go up," noted Michelle Durham, program director for the center. "A lot of folks come in after the time changes, when nights get longer," she said.

The center's staff usually serves 18-20 people for breakfast each morning. But 26 people, including some new faces, arrived on Tuesday morning. Durham has observed that more women use the center's services overall during winter, including some with colds and other medical conditions and more who are among the working poor.

Unfortunately, the center's street outreach program will not operate this winter. Because of the recent budget cuts, funding has been eliminated for the two street outreach staff who maintained relationships with 50 to 60 homeless persons on the streets, provided them with blankets and clothing, and checked up on them during extreme hot or cold weather. (Find out how you can help.)

There were two hypothermia-related deaths in D.C. during the 2008-2009 winter. The hypothermia season lasted from Nov. 1, 2008, to March 31, 2009; during this time there were hypothermia alerts on 112 days (74.2 percent of the days).

The National Weather Service's Baltimore/Washington Local Forecast Office in Sterling, Virginia, distributes wind chill advisories (issued when wind chills of -5 to -19 degrees Fahrenheit are expected) and warnings (wind chills of -20 degrees or lower) through the District's Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, NOAA Weather Radio, the Internet and cell phone text messages to spread the word to all metro area residents, including those providing services for the homeless. When a hypothermia alert is issued, additional shelters are opened and hours are extended.

What you can do

-- Volunteer: From serving meals to collecting clothing to distributing blankets, there are many ways to volunteer to help the homeless this winter and during the holidays (more links and a related article).

-- Donate to a nearby shelter or outreach organization ... a little can go a long way.

-- Participate in the 22nd Annual Help the Homeless Walkathon on Saturday, Nov. 21.

-- Call the Shelter Hotline (1-800-535-7252) or Mayor's Call Center (311) if you are homeless and need assistance, or to report someone who is homeless and in need of assistance.

Recent news

By Ann Posegate  | November 4, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Posegate, Wx and the City  
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You forgot donating money. My wife and I donate to our favorite charity, which runs a shelter and serves meals, as just two of their very worthy missions.

I would strongly encourage people to consider financial donations. You would be amazed how far some of the shelters and soup kitchens can stretch a dollar. You can do a phenomenal amount of good with such a small investment.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | November 4, 2009 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Q, thanks for the recommendation. Donating money is especially helpful in this economy when many direct service providers are short on funding. I have added a "donation" option above.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | November 4, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

My pleasure. Thank you for calling attention to this important issue.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | November 4, 2009 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Indeed, Ann. I am really glad you wrote about this. Every cold day i walk to work during the winter is a day I worry about this topic.

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | November 4, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

I do to, Camden. On the flip side, I feel very fortunate to be able to enjoy winter weather because I have my basic needs (including shelter and food) met.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | November 4, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

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