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January 04, 2012

Washington DC Law Provides Shelter From Cold for Homeless

by Mana Rabiee

In Washington DC, when the temperature falls below freezing, homeless people have a right - under law - to a shelter bed.  It is one of the few cities in the country where that is law.

When it is below freezing in Washington and the city's hypothermia alert gets activated,City agencies, charities and churches have open their doors to anyone seeking shelter for the night.

The "hypothermia van" provides the city's homeless with transportation to shelters - as well as warm clothing and blankets - to help prevent them from freezing to death.

Washington enacted a right-to-shelter policy in 1988 after seven homeless people froze to death and advocates fought for it not to happen again.

On any given night there are well over 6,000 people in Washington who have no permanent place to call home.  Advocates say nearly half of them are families. They are housed in emergency shelters, transitional housing, even hotel rooms.

Homeless advocate Cornell Chappelle says without the hypothermia right-to-shelter law, many more people would be spending winter nights on the street.

"It protects lives," explained Chappelle. "Morally, we don't want to see anyone die on the streets of the District or any city.  And we have a belief here in the District that persons have a right to have a home of their own."

For several months now, a room inside the shelter has been the temporary home of Evon and her 17-year-old-son. The divorced mom says she always thought of herself as middle class. But she lost her job, her home and exhausted her savings paying for hotel rooms.  She spent a couple of nights in her car before she found this shelter space.

"I've never been in a shelter before in my enter life," said Evon.  "[I always thought we were] middle class, always made money, had the best of everything. And this could happen to anybody.  I don't know where I'd be. Had it not been for this place, I don't know where I would be. Really I don't."

Advocates for the homeless want to see Washington's right-to-shelter law expanded year round. They feel people should have the right to a safe place to live anytime, not just during the winter. But over the years, there has been public resistance to the idea. So for now, thousands of Washington residents are finding only temporary refuge from the winter cold.