Seeking Shelter: City Provides Cold Weather Help for Homeless

Monday, January 5, 2015

By DowntownDC

Inside the Beltway, the weather has turned frigid, the ground is hard and cold, and the trees are bare.

Winter’s arrival raises concerns about the welfare of homeless people, who are vulnerable to hypothermia. Chronically homeless individuals suffering from mental health, compromised medical health and substance abuse problems are extremely susceptible to this life threatening condition.

The homeless population in the District of Columbia increased by 13 percent since last year, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government's annual count of homeless residents. The latest homeless count in D.C. is 7,748 people. There are now 50 percent more homeless D.C. residents in families than there were in 2010, according to the count.

The DowntownDC BID has the only non-governmental, clinically-based outreach team for individuals experiencing homelessness in Washington DC. Through collaboration with property managers, business community leaders, city officials, and leading service providers, the DowntownDC BID aims to decrease the number of people living on the streets and in shelters, while facilitating dialogue and building consensus on how to provide for the housing and service needs of Downtown's homeless population.

In order to facilitate overall best practices to end homelessness, the Downtown DC BID has partnered with the city government and 20 local service providers.

Through its partnership with Pathways to Housing DC, the BID employs the Downtown Homeless Services Team: a four-person, clinically-based outreach team that provides street-level intervention to move individuals beyond homelessness to independence.

Pathways provides permanent housing and support services to approximately 475 individuals each year using the Pathways “Housing First” model. This approach meets the needs of individuals who are both homeless and have complex needs— whether psychiatric or physical disabilities, co-occurring addictions, chronic medical challenges, and/or other barriers to housing— and supports them in obtaining immediate access to housing.

In addition, the BID’s Safety/Hospitality and Maintenance employees (SAMs) have 12 specially-trained members, known as the Homeless Outreach Service Team (HOST), who work closely with the Downtown Homeless Services Team and are trained to recognize and engage individuals with mental and addiction challenges.  Employing a housing first strategy, the goal is to provide stability through housing and wrap-around supportive services. 

During the hypothermic season, which runs November 1 through March 31, the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS) organizes an extensive program to address homeless people’s needs. The Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, the Metropolitan Police Department and the Departments of Health and Mental Health also are involved. The United Planning Organization, the city’s designated community action agency, provides a fleet of vans to assist the homeless and transport them to shelters.

For many downtown workers, walking down the streets of downtown D.C. can present a particular dilemma: How do you respond to a growing homeless and panhandling population? Homeless advocates offer some tips:

  • Say hello or give a smile. Connect with them and let them know that you care.
  • Don’t give panhandlers money directly, which can encourage panhandling. Rather, donate to nonprofits, such as Pathways or DC Central Kitchen, which is a better way to help move individuals into a long-term, self-sustaining lifestyle.
  • Direct them to services. The Federal City Shelter building is located at 425 2nd Street NW, and is owned by the District of Columbia government but managed by Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV). The building shelters over 1,200 people nightly, and includes space for homeless service organizations, including the CCNV, a Unity Health Care clinic, DC Central Kitchen, Clean and Sober Streets, and New Hope Ministries.
  • If the weather is below freezing, call the city’s Hypothermia Hotline at 800-535-7252.
  • Help the DowntownDC BID take part in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) annual Point-in-Time (PIT) Homeless Count on Wednesday, Jan. 27. The PIT count is conducted on a single night in January in cities across the country to assess the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless. The national snapshot data is then sent to HUD, which registers the information and includes it in their annual report to Congress on homelessness. If you are interested in volunteering or have questions about the count, please email