On Hypothermia Nights: Helping People Experiencing Homelessness

Here in Washington, DC the cold temperatures and harsh weather during hypothermia season, which lasts from November through March, are dangerous for everyone, but they are perhaps most dangerous for those who are homeless. Just last year, the punishing winter resulted in nine known deaths of homeless individuals in DC.

This winter I volunteered with the Hypothermia Emergency Response Team, which is run by the Capitol Hill Group Ministry. Team volunteers are deployed on nights when the Department of Human Services issues a hypothermia alert in an effort to support the city’s efforts to provide emergency shelter on these frigid nights. Hypothermia alerts are issued when the temperature is forecasted to fall to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below, including the wind chill factor.

On nights like these, we hit the streets from 8 to 10 p.m. looking for homeless individuals in the Capitol South and Union Station areas who are in danger, and we provide them with emergency shelter information and assess them for any signs of hypothermia. We call the shelter hotline for those who agree to stay in a shelter, and we offer blankets, cold weather gear, snacks, and hot chocolate, and other supplies.

Some of the people we meet just want hot chocolate; others just want to chat.. One rainy evening, we had dinner at a Thai restaurant with a homeless woman. Another night we called an ambulance for a homeless neighbor who was experiencing an emergency health condition. Ultimately, our role as volunteers is to be there for them and do everything we can to ensure they are safe for the night.

We keep track of the number of people we meet, where we find them, what their names are, whether we called the hypothermia hotline for them, and any other pertinent information. At the end of the night, we share this information with the ministry employee on-call, so the ministry can get a sense of their clients’ needs and trends that will inform the services they provide.

At the Alliance, we work on the issue of homelessness on the national and systemic levels, so we rarely get the chance to get face-to-face with the homeless people we are helping. My experience as a hypothermia alert volunteer has been a great opportunity for me not just to help my homeless neighbors, but also to meet and get to know them.

Photo "Ameriqa" by Zach Stern.