Big Story 10

Amid icy temperatures, some of Washington's homeless prefer to sleep rough

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a broad sidewalk blocks away from the White House, Tom and Seven are getting ready for another night of sleeping in the street in frigid temperatures that have gripped the U.S. capital.

Blankets, mats and winter clothing are piled on a sidewalk a few blocks from the White House, as a half dozen men sought to keep warm amid low temperatures. Washington DC, USA, January 3, 2018. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Carey L. Biron\n

Mounds of blankets, mats and pillows have appeared on sidewalks and in urban alcoves, the last-ditch infrastructure of a population that is not sure where else to go this winter amid the coldest temperatures in more than a decade.

Tom and Seven, who declined to give their surnames, said even though they could go to a city shelter to find a bed for the night, they rather brave the cold than sleep somewhere they fear might be unsanitary and unfamiliar.

City officials regularly try to get the two middle-aged men and their half-dozen companions huddled in blankets into a shelter as weather forecasters predict wind chills as low as -10 F (-23°C) this weekend.

Seven said he is waiting to get a voucher to access subsidized housing, which he expects to come through within a month.

“But I need that now. It’s cold now!” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“If you want to come back and bring some coats and blankets, we’ll be here,” Tom said.

City officials were unavailable for comment.


Washington has the highest homelessness rate in the United States, according to a 2016 survey from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, an umbrella group. At 124 people per 10,000, the city’s homelessness rate is more than double the national average.

While homelessness across the country has declined, in Washington it has risen sharply.

According to several metrics, it has been growing more than almost anywhere else in the country and was up over 14 percent in 2015-16 and by 34 percent since 2009, the Conference of Mayors said.

The city has a plan to “aggressively” end homelessness, as part of which Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged in November to place 400 homeless residents in permanent housing by mid-January.

An online counter noted that by Wednesday 265 families and 89 individuals had been housed.

With an eye on the weather, Washington also has had emergency measures in place since mid-December, opening additional shelter options and sending teams out onto the streets to offer care and urge people indoors.

But the cold remains a “significant concern”, said Scott McNeilly, staff attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, pointing to media reports on Wednesday that at least one homeless person may have died of hypothermia during the latest cold snap.

“There are always some people who are reluctant to go to shelter, often for very legitimate reasons,” he said, noting for instance that homeless people often have to decide whether to leave their belongings to go to city shelters.

While individuals can show up at a shelter and expect to get a bed for the night, families are required to apply through a centralized intake system.

They also have to prove their D.C. residency and that they have no other safe place to stay, both of which can be difficult, McNeilly said.

Recreation centers have been opened as shelters on an emergency basis at night but they are not open to the homeless during the day, McNeilly noted.


While the current cold snap has prompted immediate action by the city, advocates say Washington’s high rate of homelessness is due to a lack of affordable housing.

The median monthly rent is more than $1,300, according to data cited by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank.

In a 2016 report, the institute warned of the “virtual disappearance of low-cost housing in DC” and said the scale of the problem was enormous.

Some 26,000 households are spending more than half of their income in rent, the report said, affecting some 20 percent of the city’s children.

Under such circumstances, those households are just a single incident - like sickness or losing a job - away from homelessness.

New research also points to a corresponding phenomenon quickly remaking the face of homelessness in the United States - the rise of the “tent city”.

These permanent and semi-permanent encampments are set up by homeless people, mostly without the authorities’ permission.

Tent cities exist in every state of the country and the District of Columbia, and have grown by 1,300 percent over the past decade, according to findings released last month by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

The estimate comes from a search of media accounts and is probably a vast undercount, said Eric Tars, a senior attorney with the center.

Nearly a fifth of the encampments studied included more than 100 residents. Just 4 percent of these tent cities were found to be legal.

“Encampments are becoming semi-permanent features of cities,” Tars said.

Nearly two-thirds of those included in the study had been in existence for more than a year, and more than a quarter had been in place for more than five years.

“This chronic shortage in affordable housing is resulting in the growth of these shanty towns on the urban peripheries of what remains the wealthiest country in the world,” Tars said.

“It represents the drastic income inequality that we’ve come to expect in our country,” said Tars.