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 DC, 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.

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A Shelter in the Storm

A look at Washington, D.C.'s 'Snowpocalypse' through the eyes of the homeless

Some choose to sleep outside


Despite all his effort to connect people with resources, Jones knows there are still people who sleep outside, many of their own volition. Roland, 57, is one of them. He sleeps under a bridge of an overpass that connects downtown Washington DC to Roslyn, Virginia. Though he prefers to move around, sleeping in different areas of the city, the snow has kept him holed up in this one spot for more than a week.

Even in the midst of the storm, while the winds were raging, the temperature dropping and the snow rushing down with fury, Roland remained outside, using multiple blankets, a thick sleeping bag and a tarp to protect him from the elements. He says the idea of going to a shelter never crossed his mind.

“I don’t believe in no shelter,” Roland says. “It’d be crowded and all of a sudden people would be throwin’ fists around. I’d go if it had less people but if it’s over-crowded, I’m not stepping in.”

Roland has been living on the streets for more than four years. He is by all definitions a survivor. He says he has never been diagnosed with mental illness and has been clean and sober for nine years. Cocooned amid all his possessions, which include a thin mattress, a shopping cart full of blankets and clothes at the foot of his bed, a wind-breaking tarp stretching from the cart to the concrete wall behind him, and an old bicycle, he says he feels “warm enough.”

On the other side of a concrete slab resides a homeless married couple. The wife, Melanie, 52, is sitting on a chair, wearing multiple sweaters and a winter hat with a blanket wrapped around her feet. She says her husband is bathing and points to a large rectangular box covered by a blanket.

Jones knows that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want what you are offering, even in the midst of a record-breaking snowstorm.

The space is unique… perhaps an unintended architectural pocket formed by concrete slabs on all sides and above, where the bridge begins to emerge from the ground, but with a long narrow opening about a foot and a half wide between the side and top concrete slabs, making it accessible to anyone slender enough to fit through. And once in, there is almost no need to crouch, as the pocket is about six feet high. It is here that Melanie calls home. And it’s obvious she has tried to make it look that way. The place vaguely resembles an average studio apartment. Inside is a full size bed, multiple pots and pans neatly organized against one of the walls, and a small grill in the center. Heaps of trash, dirt and road debris fill one end of the enclosure. Melanie sits in her chair, calmly applying make-up to her face.

“I don’t deal with shelters,” she says. “I never have.” Melanie says she’s been living in this alcove of the highway bridge for nearly 10 years and will keep on living there until she and her husband can afford to rent a room. Like Roland, she too was outside during the storm. But she stayed warm with layers of clothes and her trusty grill, never considering a trip to a shelter. Her faith in what a shelter can do for her is very limited.

“I’m very independent,” she says. “They can help me but I think the Lord can help me more. That’s who I count on.” The optimism becomes apparent through her smile. “I know things will change. I rely on Him.”

Meanwhile, George Jones keeps moving. He knows that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want what you are offering, even in the midst of a record-breaking snowstorm. Eventually Jones makes it back to Nativity Shelter, a women’s year-round shelter where his office is located. He drops off a few things, jokes around with a few of the residents and, before long, he’s off again. No rest for the weary. He knows it’s cold outside and people need a place to go.