As temperatures begin to consistently plummet below freezing, Ward 3 is without a cold-weather shelter for homeless men. St. Luke’s Mission Center, located at 3655 Calvert St. NW, is no longer operating the 40-bed hypothermia shelter it had hosted since 2005.

Rev. Charlie Parker, a senior pastor at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, which oversees St. Luke’s, says the parish and the city agreed last year the shelter would not reopen this season. The parish attempted to help locate a new shelter in the ward, he says, with no success.

“We just couldn’t come up with anything,” Parker says. “It wasn’t really our job per se. It was the city’s job to find that space, but we were eager to make sure the guys we work with had a place to go to.”

Hypothermia shelters provide extra capacity for people in the District with no place to sleep during extreme cold, when temperatures below freezing may lead to injury or death. The city houses single women, single men, unaccompanied youth, and families in separate facilities. As a part of the 2015-16 Winter Plan, the city designated 1,600 beds for men across multiple sites, including preexisting year-round shelters and 256 overflow beds that are only available if all other facilities are full. Vans operated by the United Planning Organization are deployed during hypothermia season to transport men and women to shelter.

On the first night of below-freezing temperatures, some men showed up at the mission and were transported to other open centers, Parker says. “I don’t know that there’s been anyone since then,” he says. “My sense is that word travels pretty quickly.”

D.C. Department of Human Services spokesperson Dora Taylor says that the District has requested more applicants for hypothermia shelters, but they do not have any upcoming locations in Ward 3.

“There’s not a bunch of organizations jumping into the business of accommodating people with homelessness,” Taylor says.

Parker says the mission does not have a space with an easily accessible bathroom, and for the men to reach one, they had to walk through a significant portion of the facility and some of its offices. St. Luke’s runs other programs to combat homelessness; it is home to a seven-bed shelter for men re-entering the workforce and the offices of Friendship Place, which helps homeless people obtain social services and housing. 

Last summer, the mission was the site of a tragedy. On June 19, 53-year-old homeless photographer Joel Johnson was killed under a portico outside one of St. Luke’s doorways, the Washington Post reported. The investigation into his death is open and no arrest has been made in the case, according to Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson Sean Hickman. However, Johnson’s death was not the reason the hypothermia shelter closed; discussions about shifting it to another location began before the killing, Parker says.

Last winter, D.C. expanded its use of recreation centers and churches as overflow sites. “The overflow sites served an important role in the system, because… some of our most vulnerable clients will only go inside when the temperatures get extremely cold, and some will only go to locations that they can access by foot,” the Winter Plan states. “Therefore, having sites throughout the city has proven to be an important life saving measure.”

“The city has, at least, a stated commitment that there needs to be a hypothermia shelter in each ward,” Parker says.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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