Homeless in Washington, DC During Blizzard of 2016 – Winter Storm Jonas


It's Monday, January 25th, 2016 and the nation's capital is digging out from Winter Storm Jonas. I'm writing from Starbucks and was elated to find them open today. That brings me to what I knew would be one of the biggest problems for the homeless during the blizzard: lack of access to food. Though I don't have very much money, I have enough to buy a little bit of food if and when I can't make it to a place where free food is served or when such places are closed due to inclement weather. That said, I was able to purchase a cup of coffee, charge my phone and use the wi-fi this morning. Things are getting back to "normal" for Yours Truly, being as I don't ride the transit on most days. (Things still aren't back to normal for those who use the transit system daily.)

In past years I've attended DC Government's winter plan meetings. As far as I know, it is only the homeless service providers in DC Government and those contracted under the government to deliver homeless services that devise a winter plan. Given the storm of negative media coverage and public outrage that DC Mayor Muriel Bowser is being pummeled by right now, it might be a good idea for her to expand such meetings to include discussion of how the city as a whole – not just the homeless – will be assisted during a winter storm. It should be a function of her full administration – not just homeless service providers in the Dept. of Human Services and the Inter-agency Council on Homelessness. If that's already the case (which is highly doubtful), she'd best not tell anyone.

At these winter plan meetings, I've mentioned the fact that homeless people are fed dinner at the shelters but must venture out to soup kitchens for breakfast and lunch. Fred Swan (who is no longer with DHS) explained to me that, while the homeless DO need to venture out for breakfast and lunch during COLD weather, there will be additional meals brought to them when there is SNOW on the ground. I wondered even then as to how food would be brought to the homeless if the roads were impassible. I got my answer a couple of days ago: It won't, in many cases.

With me having had that sneaky suspicion days before the storm, I shared a Washington Post article about giving to the homeless before the blizzard. It focused on their need for blankets and warm clothing. It listed emergency shelter contacts. As I shared it with my 15,000 friends, fans and followers, I mentioned the need for food. However, the need to get to a warm place (or to simply cover up sufficiently) dwarfs the need for food. I get that. Completely. As it turns out, lack of nutrition was not the only problem experienced by the homeless during Winter Storm Jonas.

I work. So, on the morning of Friday, January 22nd, I caught the Green Line Subway to the Suitland station. From there I needed to catch the K 12 bus. I exited the metro station at 8:30 AM. I asked a woman near the K 12 bus shelter if the bus was running. She said that, according to the schedule, one had come at 8:20 and another was due at 8:50. I went to the convenience store and returned at 8:42. At 8:52 she and I spoke again and wondered if the bus was running. I approached the station manager who was standing at the station exit and asked if the K 12 was running. He said, “No”. It turns out that several of the buses that serve that station were not running. There were dozens of people waiting for buses that weren't coming and a station manager who didn't have the decency to walk over and tell them. I visited the metro website to see if there was a list of buses that weren't running on the morning of Friday, January 22nd even before the storm hit. There was; but, it didn't list the K 12. Furthermore, the site and the news said that buses would run until 5 PM and trains would run until 11 PM. Here it was about 9 AM and many buses were not running. I got off from work just after 2 PM and was dropped off at a bus stop around 2:30. Though it is near several bus routes, the metro website would indicate that there were no buses running within a mile of me. I met an elderly woman who'd been waiting for over 45 minutes and ended up walking her to the Suitland station (over 3 miles away). Her phone was dead and she didn't know directions to the station. For her, I was a God-send.

Around 9 AM on January 23rd I walked about three blocks to Union Station to check on the homeless and thus began what would turn into a 15-hour workday for me. There were about 50 homeless people in different parts of the station – the atrium (right inside of the driving circle), in the Au Bon Pain bakery (which was open), in the Amtrak waiting area and downstairs in the food court (where only Johnny Rockets was open). Around 10 AM I contacted DC Government to inform them that there were about 50 homeless people in the station who didn't have access to food. I was told that DC government was in contact with the National Guard and the Red Cross in an effort to get food and other assistance to the needy. Around 7 PM a humvee pulled up to Union Station to give out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix and granola bars to the homeless who got word quickly enough and were able to get outside before the humvee pulled off.

I actually called and texted DC Government several times that day. I informed them that there was a homeless encampment on First Street NE about two blocks north of the station and that there might be 25 or 30 people in the approximately 15 tents – some containing couples and most being elderly. Though the director of the Dept. of Human Services (the only one I called) was as accommodating as possible, a different government functionary (who was probably acting of her own accord) called me and made it clear that I was getting in the way with my phone calls. After a couple of minutes of conversation, she said that getting folk out of the elements was her priority – not getting them fed. I immediately understood her logic there. Even so, I suspect that the DHS director mentioned me in an off-hand remark and that the other woman took it upon herself to “put me in check” -- not a good idea.

I left Union Station just before 9 PM, returned to the CCNV Shelter for a few minutes (namely to get some money I had stashed there) and headed back out – this time to walk the streets and see what homeless people might not have been found and told that the temperature was expected to drop to about 15 degrees that night. I would end up finding two men. The one I found near 14th Street and NY Ave NW chose not to heed my warning. I later flagged down an FBI officerette who promised to check on him. The other man was at the bottom of the metro escalator near F and 12 NW. He seemed new to the homeless scene and was elated when I asked him if he wanted to enter shelter. I called the hypothermia van for him and left. My phone died immediately thereafter. I returned to CCNV around 11:50 PM – passing a plow that was stuck in the snow at 3rd and D NW.

I returned to Union Station on the morning of January 24th. A homeless woman flagged me down to tell me that, after I left the previous night, station security became very disrespectful toward the homeless. They made those who were sitting in the Amtrak waiting area in cushioned seats that had backs move to the atrium and sit on wooden benches that don't have backs. They made the homeless sit up all night and wouldn't allow them to go to sleep. This is reminiscent of how U.S.soldiers “tortured” their Iraqi POW's. She also told me that security told the homeless at 5:30 AM that they had to leave the station; but, then she heard a radio call come in telling security to let them stay. She also told me that her boyfriend has video of the incident which includes a security guard telling a homeless man to suck his [“Richard” Peter Johnson]. I would later find out that no one had approached the encampment with food and that there were people there who hadn't eaten in a day or two. As it turns out, the Salvation Army food truck that normally stops near Union Station didn't show up on either day.

On the 24th I would also find out that So Others Might eat (S.O.M.E.) had actually been open every day for breakfast and lunch, though the walk there from Union Station (which takes me 20 minutes on a good day) would have been quite treacherous for most people – especially the elderly homeless and those who are pulling wheeled suitcases. I can't speak to whether or not the usual dinner arrived at CCNV (with DC Central Kitchen being in the basement of the same building); because I was out and about at 5 PM on the 23rd and 24th. However, I found it somewhat challenging to buy a decent meal for a decent price, even though I had money. (My only options were at Union Station in Johnny Rocket's and Au Bon Pain, though I walked for miles.) Another woman stopped me this morning to tell me that the women at the Open Door Shelter (in the CCNV/DC Central Kitchen Bldg) were unable to get a “hot” meal. I'm a bit more concerned with whether or not they got “enough” food. I'll see what else I can find out.

In past years I've seen homeless people who'd exited shelter during a snow emergency and were sitting at the McPherson Subway Station. When I asked them why, they said that they were given additional “meals” in the morning; but, these meals were watery soup (flavored water) and that they'd come out to see what solid food they could get their hands on. At any rate, I find myself having to raise the same concerns year after year with DC Government. So, here's an idea that will benefit, not only the homeless, but also the entire DC community: 

The winter storm motorcade:

When DC has its next winter storm, the mayor should put together several motorcades – at least one per ward. Each motorcade should be led by two (2) plow trucks which are followed by a fire truck,an ambulance, a small gas truck, a humvee and a van that contains both hot food and MRE's (meals ready to eat). That would allow the roads to be plowed even as emergency personnel move through the city delivering food and attending to any emergencies that arise. Should one emergency vehicle need to break away from the motorcade temporarily, it could be led by a plow to its destination. Additionally, all kitchens that cook for the homeless and other needy populations could stay open 24 hours and keep the meals coming. Homeless shelters could double as places where housed people within walking distance who lack food could find a meal.

Though the mayor wants to be a “woman apart” who doesn't follow in the footsteps of former mayor Mr. Adrian Fenty or ANY man (much less a homeless man), let's hope that she doesn't reject this idea on account of my gender – or find some other crazy reason for rejecting it.

It's just an idea.

INTERESTING NOTE: I stopped writing this blog post and stepped out to get some food a while ago. I saw a female reporter being filmed by a man. When I asked what station they were from, I got the sense they didn't want to tell me. I persisted and found out it was Cox. I asked the woman if they had covered anything about how the homeless fared during the storm. She told me quite unabashedly that they cover issues that affect taxpayers. I said that the homeless shelters are run with tax dollars. She said she had to go and catch up with the camera man. I just wished i'd had my phone's voice recorder running throughout that exchange.


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