On Friday, a massive winter storm picked up speed in Washington, DC, dumping 13 inches by 5 a.m. on Saturday morning with an expected accumulation of more than 20 inches in the area.
For many families, that means getting provisions and hunkering down inside their homes. But for hundreds of homeless families from the DC area, that means potentially being stranded for days in motel rooms outside the city with no access to food.
In an attempt to shelter its homeless population, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) administration started putting people in empty motel rooms because it had run out of shelter space. There were 211 families, including almost 700 people, in motels in Maryland as the storm began, close to a record number, the Washington Post reports. There are likely more in motels throughout the area, as more than 430 families were placed in rooms over the summer and an additional 450 were put in motels since November.
And those families, many of them young single mothers caring for multiple children, have no way to reach grocery stores and could be stranded in the rooms for days. Laura Green Zeilinger, the District’s head of homeless services, said city workers had already started trying to reach the families before the storm began, bringing bags of groceries and meal cards. But she also admitted that they will be stuck where they are. “Yes, they will be marooned, just like everybody in the city will be marooned,” she told the Post.
The city is also grappling with those who may still be outside in the blizzard conditions. Dozens of people were still camped outside in downtown DC on Friday. To help get people indoors, the city has declared a cold weather emergency that requires shelters to stay open and serve meals throughout the day so that homeless residents don’t have to leave , and it opened recreation centers as temporary shelters for single people and some couples who can stay together. Caseworkers and police are also canvassing the city to determine if homeless people who are still outside can make rational decisions and force them inside if they can’t. “We do have authority to make sure they are safe and inside,” Bowser said at a news conference.
Winter weather, even in less extreme conditions, can be deadly for those who stay outside and have nowhere indoors to go. In 2014, 55 homeless people died on DC’s streets from things like exposure or violence, while an estimated 2,000 homeless people died around the country. Hypothermia can set in even in weather as warm as 50 degrees, but many cities don’t declare hypothermia alerts or winter emergencies, which trigger the opening of extra shelter space, until 40 degrees or lower, with some waiting until it’s in the teens. And many cities run out of emergency space anyway.
Advocates warn, however, that forcing people indoors isn’t the best solution to the problem. They say that it’s not that people need to be coerced into accepting help, but that enough help — in the form of affordable, permanent housing — just isn’t available. A number of cities and one state have proven that the solution can be simply housing entire homeless populations — in their cases, all homeless veterans — if enough resources are committed to the effort.