As temperatures dropped to frigid temperatures, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) took extra measures to protect the city’s vulnerable residents from Jan. 23-25, activating four D.C. Department of Parks and Recreations sites to serve as overflow shelters and stationing warming buses at four more locations.
The city worked with the District’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA); the Department of Human Services (DHS); and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to provide the buses, where homeless residents were provided hand warmers, blankets and a meal of fried chicken, cole slaw and a roll. The buses, called warming stations, were located at 5th and C streets NW, outside of Union Station; 17th and H NW; 23rd and L NW; 27th and K NW. The buses opened from 3:00 p.m. until 9:00 a.m.
The warming stations were activated because the temperatures dropped below freezing.
The recreation centers were opened to serve as overflow for the city’s homeless shelters from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. The centers include, Kennedy Recreation Center, Columbia Heights Recreation Center, Banneker Recreation Center, and Emory Recreation Center.
The warming buses initiative was initiated by Gray in early January. They will be activated every time there is a cold weather emergency alert, when temperatures drop below 20 degrees, city officials said.
“I have never experienced something like this before, but I like this better than staying outside,” said Kevin Williams, 40, who was among 208 homeless people who used the buses to stay warm on Jan. 23. “They feed us here, and I like the idea of coming in and out of the bus when I want to.”
A report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that 13,205 homeless people live in the D.C. area, making it the fifth largest homeless population in the country among large metro areas.
According to DHS spokeswoman Dora Taylor, the city’s homeless people are very resourceful about finding shelter and have a network that they share among each other.
“We spread word among our service providers and all our shelters, to look out for homeless individuals during this time,” she said. “There is a winter plan that is already in place for hypothermia emergencies.”
Orock Ojog, 32, who emigrated from the Cameroon to Maryland four years ago. Sitting in one of three warming buses parked in front of Union Station, Ojog said after living with her parents, she finally got a rude awakening that she needed to be independent. She moved from her parents’ house three years ago into a shelter because she could not afford a place with her limited income from working doing odd jobs with a temporary agency in D.C.
Although Ojog goes to the shelter to take a shower and to eat breakfast and lunch, she never sleeps there at night.
“I see the women from the shelter in the daytime when I go there, and I don’t want to see them all day long,” she said. “I sleep in a friend’s car at night and spend most of my evenings at Union Station. Last time I went to Union Station, it was so crowded with people I had to leave. I found out about the bus from a friend so I came here.”
She praised the warming bus. “This is great, it’s warm in here, they have food for us, blankets and hand warmers. Yesterday, like I said Union Station was really packed. There was nowhere to sit down. At night in the car, it gets cold sometimes. Even though I have the key [and] I can turn on the ignition to keep warm, when I turn it off and fall asleep, it gets cold.”