The temperature’s already starting to plummet, and it won’t stop until it hits single digits. That’s annoying to most Washingtonians, but potentially life-threatening for the city’s homeless population. The city is required by law to provide shelter to all homeless residents in need when the temperature drops below freezing, but that’s sometimes easier said than done, partly because not all homeless people will find shelter (or be found by the city), and partly because the shelters have limited space. Here’s a breakdown of the latest numbers.

Last night, there were 1,645 single homeless residents in D.C. shelters, according to Michele Williams of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, which tracks homelessness numbers for the city. Those shelters have 1,727 beds, so they’re near but not quite at capacity. Additionally, there were 431 families at the D.C. General shelter and the apartment-style shelter program. The city has only 431 shelter units for homeless families. In recent years, the city has begun putting some homeless families up in motels, at substantial cost to D.C. taxpayers. There are currently 243 homeless families staying at motels on the District’s dime, for lack of shelter space.

So how many people are left on the street? It’s hard to say. At last count, there were 6,685 homeless residents in D.C., but that count is a year old: It was taken in January 2013. The next count in scheduled for Jan. 29. Of those 6,685 residents, 4,010 were in shelters (including motels), 2,343 were in transitional housing, and 512 were on the street. That last figure, though, fluctuates greatly, since people are more likely to stay on the streets when it’s warm out and to seek shelter when it’s cold.

“We don’t expect a huge increase in the overall numbers in this year’s count,” says Williams. “I think we’ll see the same trends that we saw last year, which is that singles decreased and families increased.” Williams says the number of single homeless people is declining due to the city’s efforts to address chronic homelessness, but the number of homeless families is increasing due to persistent unemployment and the rising cost of housing.

The city is currently sending out vans to try to find and shelter homeless people in need. Exactly how many of them there are, we don’t know. But if you see someone in need of shelter, you can call the D.C. shelter hotline at 1-800-535-7252.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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