Concerns DC Homeless Community Will Brave Cold in Fear of COVID-19 Exposure at Shelters

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With temperatures dipping below freezing at night, concerns grow that many people experiencing homelessness may not be taking advantage of help due to fears of the coronavirus.

For many like Gary Olden, who has been homeless for years, getting off the streets and out of the cold can be a matter of life and death. Hundreds of homeless residents sleep out on the streets in the District every night — many in tents, some under bridges.

Olden said he’s concerned about catching COVID-19, but when it gets this cold, he doesn’t want to be on the streets at night.

“I’m not going to sleep outside; I go in, man,” he said. “I mean, whatever happens, happens. I protect myself very well.”

There’s concern that many in the homeless community are afraid to seek shelter due to fears of catching COVID-19.


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Since the pandemic began, at least 21 homeless residents have died from the virus.

District officials say they have ramped up efforts at the shelters and the hypothermia centers to make them as safe as possible.

“We do health screenings as people enter every single day, checking temperature and asking about COVID-related symptoms,” D.C. Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger said. “We have enhanced cleaning protocols.”

Zeilinger says people don’t have to choose between risking freezing on the streets and risking contracting COVID-19.

“We’ve created safety protocols that allow people to both be warm and be safe from exposure to COVID,” she said.

“We’ve seen more infections from people staying outside because they may not have all those same access to hand washing and so forth,” she said.

The D.C. Department of Human Services urges anyone who sees someone in distress who appears to need help call the shelter hotline at 202-399-7093. Hypothermia vans are available to check on people 24 hours a day.

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