Man Freezes To Death In Homeless Shelter's Parking lot
DC Law defines "hypothermia season" in two ways -- by date and by temperature. DC Government's Department of Human Services (DHS) is required by law to provide enough shelter for all people who present as homeless between November 1st and march 31st. However, if it freezes before or after that time frame(including the windchill factor), they must be prepared to provide shelter to all who are in need of it and are within the city limits at that time (regardless of whether or not that person claims to be a resident of the city).
But on that fateful day in October, a homeless man in a wheelchair was denied shelter and died in the parking lot behind the shelter. I've yet to learn his name and I'm relatively sure he wasn't someone I knew, with Washington, DC having close to 7,000 homeless people and a population of 600,000. When I first got wind of his death, I suspected that the shelter was full and that he was turned away for lack of bed space.
When there is a freeze and all beds are full, shelters may put people on cots or in chairs. They are not allowed to put someone out of a shelter during freezing weather (day or night) unless the person is taken to the hospital or to jail.
A fellow homeless advocate who uses the New York Avenue Shelter (where the incident took place) gave me his account:
"A homeless man in a wheelchair tried to enter the shelter with a beer. He was told by staff that he couldn't come in with the beer. So, he stayed outside. Another homeless man who is also an advocate came out to try to talk the man in the wheelchair into coming in. After that, everyone went in. When we came out the next morning, he was frozen."
I asked if staff had made a good-faith effort to get the man to enter the shelter or if they called the police or ambulance. He said, "No, when the man didn't want to dispose of the beer, they just left him there and went in".
In Washington, DC emergency responders are allowed to "FD-12" someone who is deemed to be an immediate danger to themselves or others. (In Florida it's called "Baker Acting" them.) That person can be forced to receive help.
That said, the victim had a drinking problem. But, if shelter staff had acted in good faith, he would still be living. Of note is the fact that it was another homeless person, not staff, who tried to coax the man into entering the shelter. The shelter staff seems to have a much different (and I dare say a much worse) problem insomuch as they lack compassion or a true concern for the people with whose safety they are charged.
This situation also highlights an area which I seriously doubt ever gets covered during training for shelter employees. I'm inclined to believe that they are not told what to do if someone with a drinking problem refuses to dispose of their beer while needing shelter on a hypothermic night.
The city of Washington, DC recognizes at least five types of shelters, the most common being called "low-barrier" shelter. At a low-barrier shelter a person:
1 -- may give a false name
2 -- does not need identification
3 -- will not have the police called on them if they are on the lam (unless they commit a new crime while in the shelter)
4 -- will not have Immigration called on them
5 -- may be high or drunk upon entry, so long as they don't have any alcohol or drugs on their person at the time.
Having illicit drugs in one's possession is a crime in any location and entering the shelter with them warrants calling the police. But while drinking outdoors is a crime, going into the shelter with the alcoholic beverage actually reverses the criminal status. However, possessing alcohol while in the shelter is against regulations (which don't rise to the same level as a law). The police can't technically charge a person with a crime because they possess alcohol in a homeless shelter, though they can remove the person at the behest of shelter staff.
So, with 25% of the homeless being drug users and another 15% being heavy drinkers, it is time to reconsider policies pertaining to the sheltering of substance abusers. after all, the designation of "low-barrier" shelter was created so that people who would otherwise forgo shelter in order to avoid being arrested or who might fall into oncoming traffic while in a drunken stupor would instead come out of the elements and live to see another day. With this man's beer having cost him his life as he sat in the parking lot of a homeless shelter and froze to death, this low-barrier shelter defeated its own purpose.
Labels: accountability, DC Council, DC Government, drugs, exposure deaths, Homeless Advocate, Homeless People, homeless services, Safety, sensitivity training, social services, Vince Gray, winter weather