and the DC city government can heave a sigh of relief because the never ending homeless crisis can be kicked down the road until the Fall of 2015. Anyone who lives or has lived in DC for the last several years can attest to the annual event known as the "Hypothermia Season." In D.C., all homeless people must be housed if the temperature falls below freezing. On the face of it, this is a good and humane thing that prevents people from freezing to death on the streets. It does nothing to address the problem of the growing numbers of homeless men and women and families that live on the streets of Washington, DC. To put this in perspective, every January the nationwide Point in Time count begins. This is a real time census conducted by hundreds of volunteers in cities across the country. The results are then made public the following April. A random survey of DC's shelter system prior to the January 2015 point in time count revealed that hundreds of homeless families in the District entered city shelters — most for the remainder of the hypothermia season. Combined with single men and single women, a total of 3,953 were being housed in shelters at that point in time. Nearly all single people must vacate the city’s shelters each morning and return in the afternoon to line up for a spot for the night. Families are housed for the duration of winter in the abandoned D.C. General hospital campus and in overflow motels that the city is renting. The unofficial and projected numbers for the most recent point in time count is expected to top 5,000 single men and women as well as homeless families with children.
Why is this news? It's not. it's nothing new at all and has become as predictable as the coming of the hypothermia season itself. DC now has a new Mayor who has pledged to end homelessness in the city by 2018. A noble goal and an equally empty campaign promise. The current administration like previous administrations is fond of appointing bureaucrats and establishing task forces and commissions to find solutions to the problem. Buzzwords and catchy PR language such as, affordable housing, rapid rehousing and housing navigators abound in the halls of city government. Yet each Winter the homeless population grows larger and the city struggles to meet the crisis.
So what's going on here? How can a city like Washington, DC fail to provide the most basic living conditions of so many of it's residents? Three words come to mind - They are Invisible. For all of the hand wringing and promises to do better next Winter, the fact is these poor souls are hopeless, helpless and powerless. They do not vote and are no ones constituency. They cannot lobby the city council for zoning changes that allow for gentrification of entire city blocks and they do not have a voice in the expenditure of millions of city dollars to build sports venues. Were it not for the array of not-for profit organizations and advocates that tend to their needs on a daily basis, I suspect the mortality rate would climb dramatically.
What to do, that is the perennial question. My advice, spend some time getting to know a homeless person. You probably see them everyday on your way to work or in your neighborhood. Learn their name, ask how long they have been homeless, have a conversation that dignifies their existence. After you've done this for awhile contact your elected official and demand some specific answers about what the city will do to help (insert name here) this coming hypothermia season. If you do this one thing you will make a difference.
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