WASHINGTON — The homeless can sometimes be reluctant to enter shelters, unwilling to leave their belongings unattended outside and, perhaps, fearful of sharing confined space with those they don’t know. But the extreme cold of recent days provided plenty of incentive to get indoors.
“I ain’t never been that cold before, so I kinda got nervous” … “I’m not used to wearing thick gloves” … “That cold weather froze my hands and my thighs and I’m still in pain,” complained three men who sought shelter at Central Union Mission at Massachusetts Avenue near North Capitol Street in Northwest D.C.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser activated the city’s Cold Emergency Plan this week, which allows city officials to order the homeless into shelters when temperatures fall to 15 degrees or 20 degrees when it’s snowing.
The city’s shelters are strained by the extra demand.
“It is a challenge; everyone is rising to meet the challenge as best as possible,” says Pastor James Lewis, senior director of the Men’s Ministry at Central Union Mission.
The mission, which accommodates 170, is making room for 20 or more extra men during the bitter cold.
“The day rooms are being utilized now for the men in there watching TV and playing games,” Lewis says, “but tonight we’ll use it to house as many people who walk in off the street.”
On any given night, the number of homeless in shelters across the city can reach 4,200 and they’re housed in places including motels and what was once D.C. General Hospital.
Faith-based shelters, including Central Union Mission, are also typically at full capacity and the cold weather only worsens the shortage of warm beds for the homeless.
“We’re full every day,” Lewis says. “I mean just every day.”