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On Tuesday, as temperatures plunged and the city government issued a hypothermia alert, I wrote that cold weather could perversely be good news for the District’s homeless residents. The city is required by law to provide shelter to all homeless residents in need when hypothermia conditions exist—-when temperatures with windchill drop below freezing. As the number of homeless families jumped this winter, their fortunes seesawed with the temperature: When it was cold out, they got a bed; when it was warmer, they had to fend for themselves, sleeping in apartment-building hallways or laundromats, or borrowing money from friends to stay at cheap motels. This week’s cold snap meant shelter for families who may have lacked it for the past few weeks.
But then there’s the harsher side of hypothermia, when it can be very, very bad news for the city’s homeless residents. Not all of them have the means to check the weather forecast and duck into the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center for placement in shelter. For those who aren’t in the know, the cold can be deadly.
The bodies of two dead men were found yesterday morning by the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue SE and Interstate 295, in a homeless encampment. As Patricia Fugere, director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, told the Washington Post, “That frigid weather really came out of nowhere, and I’m sure it caught folks off guard. I was talking to a fellow yesterday afternoon who sleeps outdoors, and he had no idea the temps were going to go below freezing.”
Police have not yet determined the cause of death, although they told the Post there was no evidence of foul play, and they’re looking into hypothermia as the cause.
Some homeless residents have regular internet access and a frequent Twitter presence; one of them tweeted at me on Tuesday when the hypothermia alert was announced, anticipating a night of city-provided shelter. These residents rejoiced at the news of the impending cold. But others didn’t know the cold was coming until it hit them. And at least two of them appear to have tried to stick it out and await the warmth of a morning sun they’d never see.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery