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Homeless Residents Share What It's Like To Live Outdoors In D.C. In February

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The Georgetown Ministry homeless outreach team distributes socks on K Street NW.
Lauren Ober/WAMU
The Georgetown Ministry homeless outreach team distributes socks on K Street NW.

On a recent night, the temperature was well below freezing and there wasn't much movement on the Georgetown University campus. But there was some activity.

Inside Poulton Hall, Hannah Collins, a student leader of the Hypothermia Outreach Team, was organizing supplies to give to homeless people — socks, gloves, blankets and more. The rest of the team, including two students, a staff member and her husband, packed the supplies in their bags.

The Hypothermia Outreach Team is a collaboration between the Georgetown's Center for Social Justice, Research, Teaching and Service and the Georgetown Ministry Center. Last year — the outreach team’s first — 20 people volunteered. This year, 180 members of the Georgetown community trained for the team.

Helping those in need

Every night during hypothermia season, a team of volunteers walks one of three designated routes. This night’s route was K Street. But before they went out, grad student Alex Green had some questions.

“If someone says they don't want our help, do we call the hypothermia outreach service anyway because they can make more of a judgment about whether or not they're in a life-threatening condition?” he asked Collins.

“It kind of depends on how bundled up the person seems. If they legitimately look like they've got blankets and a hat, and they don't seem like they're dangerously cold, then you just ask them if they want to go to a shelter,” Collins said.

On the walk down K Street, the team encountered only one homeless person. His name was Rashid and he took a pair of socks, a space blanket and some bright red gloves.

But at the crazy series of overpasses where K Street and Rock Creek Parkway intersect, the team found a number of folks in some pretty shocking circumstances.

John Smallwood was living inside the bridge at K and 27th Streets with his girlfriend and three other people. There was a small sort of hobbit door on the side of the bridge abutment. One of the outreach volunteers knocked and Smallwood answered.

“Does anyone else in there need anything?” Collins asked.

“They wouldn't get up and answer the door, but yeah they need stuff. Thank you very much ma'am. And God bless y'all,” Smallwood said.

Smallwood was a house painter in Virginia. But when the economy tanked, he couldn't find work. He ended up homeless. He’s been living in the bridge for seven months. He was invited to stay there by another homeless man who he met on the street.

Despite the cold, Smallwood said it was pretty comfortable inside the abutment.

“I tell you what, I got hooked up with a tent. And with them sleeping bags and that tent, I’m warm as can be. I’m not hurting for anything,” he said.

Smallwood and the rest of the folks living in the bridge took some socks and blankets. Normally, the team would have more supplies to hand out, but with the recent brutal weather, inventory was low.

Hannah Collins and Alex Green map the locations of homeless people as part of the Hypothermia Outreach Team. (Lauren Ober/WAMU)

Worse than the alternatives

From the bridge, the team walked to a small encampment under the Whitehurst Freeway. This group was largely Latino.

In Spanish, Hannah Collins asked a man sleeping on a pallet covered in blankets if he needed anything. “Un par de calcetines,” he said — one pair of socks.

Inches from the man’s pallet, about a half a dozen rats were ripping into a plastic bag. Other rats scurried around a cluster of sleeping people. For Georgetown sophomore Alex Nino, the scene was eye-opening.

“It tells me how much worse the alternatives must be if this is what these people think is the best that they can do right now,” he said.

The last stop of the night was Washington Circle, across from GW Hospital. Tommy Shrader emerged from his tent to ask for a blanket. He became homeless a year and a half ago after the restaurant where he worked closed.

Shrader said this winter has been hard.

“They try to get us warm and in shelters and stuff, but me and my friend, we don't do the shelters,” he said. “I just brave it out here.”

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