A Shelter in the Storm
A look at Washington, D.C.'s 'Snowpocalypse' through the eyes of the homeless
It’s a winter wonderland that nobody asked for and a biting cold that pierces layers of clothes. Cars line the streets submerged in snow. Stacks of the white stuff reach nearly 5 feet high in certain areas, towering over the recently plowed pavement. The nation’s capitol was pummeled last week by nearly 3 feet of snow in five days, the largest snowfall in the city’s history. Digging out will take time. But time is a luxury that people like George Jones can’t afford. He has worked literally nonstop to keep the doors to the Catholic Charities emergency shelters open. They have never closed on his watch. It’s times like these he’s needed most. But despite his best efforts, there are still those who remain outside, sleeping, surviving, in the frigid night air.
According to a 2009 census conducted by The Community Partnership to Prevent Homelessness, there are about 6,200 homeless individuals in Washington, D.C., almost 1,500 of them children. These people are in emergency shelters, long term shelters, transitional housing or on the street. With only 2,000 shelter beds available (including those at emergency shelters) and an additional 300 units for families, it seems no surprise many shelters have been operating at or above capacity for the duration of the snowstorm and its aftermath.
“Men’s shelters have been bursting at the seams,” Jones says, talking about the recent situation in the hypothermia shelters that he oversees. “In this city, there are a lot more homeless men than women.”
As the Catholic Charities Hypothermia Shelter Coordinator, George Jones sees to it that each emergency shelter is properly staffed and equipped with all necessary supplies. These hypothermia shelters open whenever a severe weather warning is issued by the city, sometimes at a moments notice. It’s up to Jones to find people to open them up and staff them. Overall, his days are filled with compiling data and going through paperwork and his nights consist of phone calls and shelter visits. Many times he worries about spreading himself too thin. And for good reason. The man works 10-14 hours a day, a full seven days a week. His enthusiasm and stamina to do the job seem to defy his older age and rather short stature.
“Move. You gotta move!” Jones says and laughs as he motors down the road in his Jeep Cherokee. Jazz is playing in the background. He eventually reaches Sacred Heart Catholic Church, one of 6 host sites in the city for his hypothermia shelters.
As comfortable as possible
Each hypothermia shelter opens its doors at 7 p.m., and by 7:30 the church hall of Sacred Heart is bustling with male clients. At the door, residential councilors take down names and hand out cots. The large expanse of white linoleum flooring is already covered by an array of green cots. Those with something to sleep on are the lucky ones.
“They should have more cots,” says Vincent Shepherd, one of the shelter’s long time residents. He says that demand was so high for shelter over the past week that they ran out of cots and he was forced to sleep on the floor.
Jones concedes this is not ideal but with firm policies in place forbidding the rejection of any individual from an emergency shelter, many times there are few other options. His focus is to make the client as comfortable as possible. Every shelter is supposed to have only enough cots to accommodate the maximum capacity of residents. At Sacred Heart, that number is 50. But tonight, as on many other nights over the past week, they expect 70 people or more. And if the cots break, as they do fairly frequently, the need for something to sleep on becomes all the more acute.
Shepherd, 52, who has a history of mental illness and substance abuse, has been homeless for more than five years. The shelter is hardly his ideal place to live but for now, he deals. He tells of the restless nights caused by all the “racket” made by men stumbling in intoxicated and aggressive.
“Times like these test my faith in God,” Shepherd says. “I ask myself, ‘Does God hear my prayers?’ Sometimes I need divine intervention. Sometimes, I just need help.” Still though, he admits it’s better to be in the shelter than to be freezing outside.
No more than a mile east is another men’s shelter, Banneker Recreation Center. Normally, because of recreation classes for the community, it opens at 9 p.m., but tonight is a weekend (meaning no classes) and Jones makes the decision to open doors at 7 p.m. The environment is a little more subdued. One of the residential councilors, Brad, explains that even though there are only about 19 clients so far, they are expecting more than 50. The maximum capacity is supposedly 40.
Brad is one of 30 on-call residential councilors that work under Jones in the hypothermia shelters. It’s a seasonal job that ends when the emergency shelters close on March 31. Even though he knows he’s giving vital services to a population in need, he is not motivated by any sense of moral obligation. He’s quick to note that it’s something he freely chooses to do.
“I grew up in this area,” Brad says. “It’s just part of giving back.”
One of the people he is “giving back” to is Mark Clark, a Banneker Rec Center resident. Clark, 49, appreciates having a place to stay but echoes the complaint of others: “Sometimes it gets crowded. I don’t think they have enough places like this. It’s gonna be no different wherever you go.”
Though staying at the shelter, Clark doesn’t consider himself homeless. He had a seasonal job at a golf course until he was laid off a few months ago. When faced with a decision of where to live as winter was setting in, Clark expresses some regret.
“I had the choice of living in Florida but I chose DC because they said winters here are ‘mild,’” he says as he chuckles. Now he finds himself relying on the money he earns shoveling huge heaps of snow off sidewalks and steps.
Normally, when some shelters become too crowded, residents are transported by way of a van service to other less crowded shelters in the city. Usually, these are the furthest away from downtown. But, as was discovered last week, a problem arises when 24 inches of snow falls in one day. Jones said the vans stopped altogether during portions of the storm and he had to supply transportation himself to some of the residents and his staff. Those on the streets during the storm who needed a ride to a shelter had to find their own way.
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