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D.C. has set its emergency weather plan into action for the first time this winter to save hundreds of homeless residents from dying from hypothermia. (Photo credit: Institute for Policy Studies)

The District of Columbia activated its cold weather emergency plan for the first time this winter on Jan. 4. By doing so, the city was able to secure temporary emergency housing for more than 500 of the area’s homeless.

The District activates the Cold Emergency plan when the temperature and wind chill drop to 15° F or when the temperature, with wind chill, is 20° F and there is an accompanying meteorological event such as snow. The plan aims to protect residents from life-threatening illness and injury associated with severe cold weather and was initiated originally in 1987 after 10 homeless people died from hypothermia throughout the city.

As temperatures reached unseasonable lows – in some areas the ground temperature was only 5 degrees – hypothermia alert teams hit the streets to move homeless residents indoors.

“Sometimes I have to beg and prod clients indoors even when it is bitterly cold because some fear a loss of freedom and mobility by leaving their outside space,” homeless advocate Mondraya Corley told the AFRO.

Corley has worked for more than a decade to convince residents without permanent homes to move indoors once the weather turns cold.  It is an effort she describes as difficult no matter how cold it becomes.

As many of the region’s homeless population suffers from some form of mental illness and may not be able to advocate for their own safety, city officials have found that tips to their hypothermia hotlines have increased.

During the week of Jan. 4, the D.C. hypothermia hotline received over 400 calls about homeless people in need of help; 543 people were picked up and taken to area shelters with some twenty-seven of those picked up were described, by aids, as disabled.

In November, Mayor Bowser led a charge to remove several homeless encampments around the city in an effort to move homeless populations indoors before winter began. However, despite those efforts, many remained.

Department of Human Services (DHS) in collaboration with the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA) assisted in the execution of the city’s Cold Emergency Plan.  Key components of the plan include providing access to emergency shelter, access to overnight warming sites, and free transportation to warmth and safety at an emergency shelter or warming site.

In releasing the city’s 2015-16 Winter Plan, Deputy Mayor Brenda Donald, said that the city had a duty to help those facing hypothermia. “With hypothermia season here, we remain focused on extending a helping hand to our homeless neighbors, and connecting them with resources as soon as possible,” Donald said.  “We need to intensify our outreach to those living on the streets. It is not safe for people to be outside when it gets dangerously cold, and because we firmly believe that we are our sisters and brothers’ keepers, we need to stand together and bring them in from the cold.”

To request transportation to shelter for people in D.C. who are experiencing homelessness, contact the toll-free Shelter Hotline: 1-800-535-7252 or 311. Include the time, the address or location of the sighting, and a description of the person’s appearance.

ssherman@afro.com