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A Lukewarm Welcome

Extra Beds for Homeless Draw a Mixed Reaction

For the District’s homeless, the onset of winter marks a critical time. Hypothermia becomes a risk if they cannot find shelter indoors when temperatures drop below freezing.

As part of an effort to mitigate that danger, city officials have added 100 beds for the

homeless to the D.C. General Health Campus in Southeast. Advocates for the homeless have welcomed the city’s efforts to improve services, but Capitol Hill residents who live near the health facility and were briefed on the addition at a community meeting last week had a more mixed reaction.

Neil Glick, who lives about four blocks from D.C. General and also is an advisory commissioner for the Hill East neighborhood, said he is worried about what type of traffic the new beds might bring to the area.

City officials promised residents that measures would be taken in order to ensure the face of the neighborhood would stay the same. Those measures include providing free transportation to and from the shelter and providing social services to engage the homeless during the daytime.

Clarence Carter, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, stressed that the extra beds would be removed from D.C. General after March 31, when the city will officially declare the hypothermia season over. Carter said the beds would be available “for this hypothermia season, period. End of sentence.”

But Glick remained skeptical. He asked Carter to put his comments in writing to ensure that the city could not renege on its promise to remove the beds at the end of the 2008 season.

“The city has this habit of telling us in the community one thing and then you see different results,” Glick said in an interview after the meeting. “They come to a neighborhood that really feels they have been taken advantage of on so many levels.”

Resident Rachel Gragg said she’s sympathetic to giving the homeless a warm bed at night but added that she is concerned about whether the neighborhood can absorb that many more people.

“It’s hard not to notice there’s a lot of stuff dumped on the area,” she said.

The Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005, which was passed by the D.C. City Council, mandates that the District provide hypothermia assistance whenever the air temperature falls below freezing or the wind chill factor creates the effect of a temperature of 32 degrees or below. Such assistance includes using public buildings to make space available for those who need shelter.

Michael Stoops, the director for the National Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group that has an office in the District, said D.C. winter social services for the homeless have “greatly improved.”

“The folks that are most endangered are the ones living outside,” he said, adding that having additional hypothermia beds is crucial. “It will save lives.”

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells (D) told residents “this is [us] doing our part for hypothermia this year.” Wells said the hospital’s building and bathroom will be made available 24 hours a day during the cold weather.

Carter said the city has the capacity to increase the number of extra beds at D.C. General to 144.

The facility also is home to 75 family shelter units and to the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter, which has 100 beds for homeless women, Carter said. Other services provided on the health campus, which was the location of D.C. General Hospital until it closed in 2001, include a detoxification center, the Southeast sexually transmitted disease clinic and a women’s services clinic.

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