People line up for resources being distributed at a hypothermia awareness event hosted by DHS on Nov. 20 outside the Downtown Day Services Center. Photo by Meredith Roaten

Community leaders are calling on city officials to scale back the maximum number of people sheltered at a Ward 6 recreation center during hypothermia season amid an uptick of COVID-19 cases in D.C.

Advisory neighborhood commissioners and neighborhood residents took issue with city officials planning to house up to 60 women — 10 more people than Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office recommended for mass gatherings at the time, and 50 more than the city’s revised guidance — at the Sherwood Recreation Center near the H Street NE Corridor this winter. Community leaders said city officials are compromising the health and safety of people experiencing homelessness in order to create enough shelter spaces during hypothermia season, which typically lasts from Nov. 1 to March 31.  

The District government is legally required to provide shelter for all who seek it when temperatures become dangerously cold. Each year, the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness develops a plan to determine how much shelter space needs to be available during the winter months based on shelter usage the previous year. Sherwood has been a recurring hypothermia shelter site in the city’s plan since the winter of 2016 – 17, when it was used to provide beds for up to 30 women. The following two winters, Sherwood was set up to provide up to 75 beds for women experiencing homelessness.

The winter plan is typically finalized by September, but the 2020-21 iteration was approved in October to allow more time to incorporate realistic adjustments based on the evolving health crisis.

ANC 6A gathered for a virtual meeting on Nov. 12, where several commissioners expressed concern that shelter plans at Sherwood Recreation Center might contribute to the spread of COVID-19. 

The concern isn’t new: In May, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless said it collected signatures from 1,737 individuals and 200 organizations in support of a letter urging the Bowser administration to “immediately offer non-congregate setting placement to all people living in congregate homeless shelters or on the street.”

Officials have instead emphasized steps to make congregate setting safer via social distancing, although medically vulnerable people and those exposed to COVID-19 are eligible for limited spots in several DC hotels. Those who end up in the hotels are prioritized for permanent housing.

D.C. Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger said at an agency event on Nov. 20 that even though the Sherwood Recreation Center may house more than 50 people at once, the District will still be able to accommodate appropriate social distancing procedures, like keeping beds 6 feet apart and providing people with grab-and-go meals.

“I think it’s just foreign to folks who don’t have to rely on shelter to sort of think about social distancing in that way,” she said about concerns of overcrowding at shelters this winter. “But it’s really a social distancing overlay on our system that allows people to spread out and with the additional measures to ensure safety.” 

Photo of a person in a sleeping bag laying on a white linoleum floor next to a large gray doormat.

A woman asleep in the lobby of Sherwood Recreation Center at 5:45 am on Nov. 18. Photo by Laticia Brock

Phil Toomajian, the commission’s vice chair, said at the meeting that DHS reached out to the ANC twice to invite feedback on plans to house up to 60 people at Sherwood.

The first notice, received Oct. 23, stated the ANC would have until January to provide feedback on the city’s plan to house 60 women in the recreation center’s gymnasium. The second notice, received Nov. 9, stated that the period for feedback was being shortened and the ANC now had 48 hours to respond.  

“The proposal that they’ve put forward is frankly shocking and very hard to understand,” Toomajian said at the Nov. 12 meeting. “Rather than recognizing the dangers posed by the pandemic, the District is proposing housing more people inside a basketball court within a large open recreation center.” 

Toomajian said that while the recreation center has periodically been used for shelter space, this year city officials have suggested a “24/7 use,” which he said during a pandemic will contribute to “daily superspreader event potential.” 

“None of us would choose to be in a room with 60 other strangers,” he said at the meeting. 

As COVID-19 rates continued to rise in D.C. and throughout the country, the mayor’s office and Health Department revised their guidance in late November to further reduce the permitted size of indoor gatherings from 50 people to 10. The maximum in houses of worship dropped from 100 to 50.

Marie-Claire Brown, the commissioner for 6A01, said that while DHS may not consider people being housed in a shelter to be a mass gathering, the “optics and the reality are the same” for both, given that shelters place many strangers together under one roof by design. 

“We’re looking for a response that is going to make the community feel some sense of security,” Brown said at the meeting.  

During the meeting, Toomajian proposed sending the mayor, DHS, and the Department of General Services a letter urging the city “to seek every available opportunity to provide apartment-style or hotel room housing to the unhoused residents this winter.” If recreation centers must be used, the letter suggests that the city upgrade their HVAC systems to improve air flow and set the capacity only after a public health official assesses the facility.

The motion passed 6-0 with one abstention. 

Toomajian wrote in an email that he hopes policymakers and budget drafters will provide better shelter space during hypothermia season so that people experiencing homelessness stay healthy.

“I hope the District will provide safe, warm accommodations that do not pose serious risks of COVID spread during the pandemic,” he said. “Those who are served by hypothermia shelters should not have to choose between being safe from the cold and being safe from COVID.” 

But officials insisted that even though the recreation center might house 60 people, safety procedures in place will ensure the health and safety of individuals housed there. 

Melvyn Smith, the homeless services outreach coordinator for DHS, said the recreation shelter probably won’t house 60 women at once, adding that it hasn’t been at full capacity in prior years. He said those being housed in the shelter will sleep head-to-toe and will be required to wear masks except when they are sleeping, eating, or drinking.

“At no given time are we planning on having 60 women on top of each other; that’s not a very accurate description of our shelter operations,” Smith said at the ANC meeting. “We have been given the bandwidth to use space within Sherwood to keep individuals safe. Individuals are not going to be forced to stay in the gym 24 hours a day.”

Photo of six empty cots in the gym, where plastic has been put down across the gym floor. A basketball goal is visible above.

Cots in the Sherwood Recreation Center the night of Nov. 11, one of which sags close to the floor. Ten to twenty people utilized the shelter that night. Photo by Laticia Brock

John Stokes, the interim associate director of external affairs for DGS, said officials will continue to ensure seasonal cleaning and filter replacements for HVAC systems in shelter spaces to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“This year we also made sure that there was enhanced cleaning to the facility, so more cleaning than we would normally do,” Stokes said at the meeting. “We have two people around the clock 24/7 at the facility to make sure it stays clean and sanitized.”

When asked why shelters weren’t receiving as many equipment updates as D.C. schools, Stokes said that the configuration of most schools in the District — with multiple rooms throughout the building — meant they needed air filtration updates that buildings like recreational shelters did not require. The mayor’s office released a coronavirus update in October stating that more than $31 million would be invested in safety measures for D.C. schools, including $24 million for HVAC improvements. 

Larry Handerhan, the chief of staff for DHS, said during the ANC meeting that the District opened five recreation centers so far this year — Sherwood, Banneker, Kennedy, King Greenleaf, and Trinidad — that together have the capacity to house 300 people. Additional sites in the District, including some ordinarily used only for day programs, added 147 beds for shelter purposes, he said. 

Handerhan added that the city is currently housing 810 people in year-round shelter spaces, much fewer than the 1,200-plus beds they usually offer. He said the reduction in bed space is largely due to social distancing procedures, and that in addition to keeping residents 6 feet apart they are also offering grab-and-go meals to reduce viral transmission.  

“We can’t say we’re going to prevent every case of community transmission, especially as cases are rising, but we have a lot of experience running sites that are set up relatively similar to this,” Handerhan said at the ANC meeting. “We’ve had a pretty successful experience the past couple of months keeping our residents safe.”

DHS hosted a hypothermia awareness event on Nov. 20 outside the Downtown Day Services Center to inform community members and businesses about the health risks associated with winter temperatures for people experiencing homelessness. 

An attendee at the Nov. 20 hypothermia awareness event. Photo by Meredith Roaten

Zeilinger, the director of DHS, said the department hosts similar events annually, though this year’s was held outside with extra safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. She added that the department wants to make community members aware of the city’s shelter hotline (202-399-7093) and what steps they can take to assist someone, like providing warm blankets and other “survival items.”

“While we can put all the services in place and have outreach on the streets, if there are folks that we’re missing, that neighbors are seeing, then we have not done our job as a community,” Zeilinger said. “[The event] really is a way to come together as a community to make sure that when the weather is cold and threatening, and poses additional risk to people, that they have a way of getting connected.”

Zeilinger said the department has reduced overall shelter capacity by about 60% to allow for social distancing at all hypothermia sites in the city. Occupants are required to sleep 6 feet apart and are subject to wellness checks, where nursing staff take temperatures and ask about COVID-19 symptoms. She said the city has the capacity to house 692 medically vulnerable people experiencing homelessness in hotel rooms.

She said if anyone has a fever or is exhibiting a symptom of the virus, they are provided housing at one of the city’s isolation and quarantine sites where they can get a COVID-19 test. If someone tests positive, they will be able to stay in quarantine until it’s safe for them to return to another shelter location and the department will use contact tracing to determine if anyone else might have contracted the virus, Zeilinger said. 

As COVID-19 cases have begun to rise again across the region, the total number of homeless people in DHS’s isolation and quarantine sites doubled throughout November: from 46 on Nov. 3 to 92 as of Nov. 30. However, only six new positive cases were detected among people in shelter over the same period, increasing from 353 to 359. And the number of lives lost among individuals in the homeless service system has held at 21 since July 16, according to city data.

This year, the winter plan specified how the District would reduce its capacity levels because of the pandemic. Kristy Greenwalt, the director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, said in an interview that unlike other cities that might have a fixed amount of shelter space, D.C. regularly expands its shelter capacity to meet community needs. She said the winter plan provides the city a way to estimate how many shelter beds are needed — which may fluctuate as shelter needs peak in January and February — and how the city will pay for them.

“We’re always monitoring our numbers, and if we see that we’re reaching capacity then we would activate additional sites,” she said. “So [the winter plan is] not a cap, it’s just a planning tool.” 

Meredith Roaten contributed reporting. This article was co-published with TheDCLine.org.


DHS asks that anyone interested in partnering on hypothermia-related projects contact Scott Sibley, community liaison, at [email protected] or 202-313-8758.