Hypothermia van driver Clay Simmons begins his nightly routine

When the temperature drops, shelters fill up. But not everyone who is homeless chooses to go to a shelter. Some prefer to stay on the streets, in the parks, in the homemade shelter, or on steam grates. And often, choosing not to seek refuge in a shelter can mean death.  

Already in the D.C. area this winter, at least five deaths have been attributed to hypothermia, compared to just two last winter. In December, two men were found dead in the District, and in November, one man who had been living in the woods around Woodbridge, Va., was found dead from hypothermia, according to media reports. And more deaths could come if cold weather sneaks back into town.  

Coping with the weather is a full-time job, both for the homeless and for the service organizations that seek to keep the homeless out of the cold. United Planning Organization (UPO), a private human service non-profit in the District, operates six vans during the winter months, distributing blankets, checking on people who live on the streets, and transporting the homeless to shelters. Other organizations in the District provide hundreds of beds nightly to the homeless during hypothermia season.  

Mary Ann Luby, outreach worker for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said that the shelter system for families in the District is operating at maximum capacity. And, according to Luby, more than 600 beds will close with the official end of hypothermia season at the end of March, meaning that many homeless people will once again have to fend for themselves when it comes to finding shelter at night.  

On patrol … 

For now, though, the business of preventing hypothermia continues, even when outdoor temperatures seem almost tolerable. On a recent Saturday evening in February—following the mildest afternoon in many weeks—Clay Simmons, an outreach worker and driver for UPO, took to the streets in a large white van. Simmons’ mission was to make sure that those who wanted to go to shelters got where they were going. And for those who chose to stay on the streets, Simmon’s mission was to encourage them to seek shelter—or at least to make sure they stayed as warm as possible.  

“It takes a while to get them to come in,” said Simmons, an authoritative man who sports dreadlocks. “That’s my goal every day when I come out here—to get as many people—to get everyone, actually…I mean, even bears hibernate.”  

Simmons, who also works as a bounty hunter for bail bondsmen, added that he sometimes might nag people for weeks before they decide to go to a shelter during cold nights.  

Shuttles operate around the clock during hypothermia alerts, but the vans can’t find everyone who might need help. So service organizations rely on members of the public to call in immediately if they spot someone who might need help. And often, the people who need help are not in plain sight, according to Simmons. “There are a couple of places where you don’t expect them to be; that’s where they are going to be,” he said.  

Northwest is a prime operating area for hypothermia shuttles, because many shelters are in Northwest, and because many homeless people feel safer there. 

They feel safe in the van, too. Simmons said that some passengers don’t want to leave the van, or they get upset when he pulls away after dropping them at a shelter. The van, nicknamed “Humpback,” is not much to look at. It’s a high-ceiling white Ford van that seats a maximum of 13 people, including the driver, and that could use a good washing.  

On a typical night, Simmons makes stops in Northwest, Northeast, and Southwest. Besides the standard shelters, his stops also include the street outside the emergency room at George Washington University Medical Center, an urban camp of men sleeping on steam grates, and a busy street corner in Mount Pleasant. He knows what to look for. Someone loitering in the cold is someone who might need shelter or, at least, an extra blanket. And Simmons carries about 50 blankets with him on a cold night.  

“We’re very diligent about our patrolling,” he said. “And that’s essentially what we are doing, patrolling.” 

Simmons said that he tries to establish rapports with attendees at parking garages so that they will call for a hypothermia shuttle instead of a police car if they spot a homeless person seeking shelter in a garage. He also seeks to build a rapport with the police, too, and encourages the public to call service organizations immediately when they spot someone who is sleeping in the cold and might need help.  

D.C. mayor Anthony Williams echoes that sentiment when he announces the District’s hypothermia plan in December. “The plan for this year calls for every government agency, every community, and all our citizens to get involved and become our brothers’ keepers,” Williams said. “We ask you to call if you see someone on the streets when it’s below 32 degrees.”  

Choices… 

Each shelter is different, with its own set of resources and policies, and the shelters’ guests differ, too. Some shelters are for women or are geared more toward families. The Crummel shelter tends to draw day workers in their 40s and 50s, according to Simmons. 

Lawrence Detterville, 40, a former executive assistant, was laid off from his job recently and became homeless in January. He’s been homeless before and is familiar with the shelter scene. 

“Definitely packed,” said Detterville, describing the impact the cold weather has had on shelters. “Everybody’s getting out of the cold…because I was unable to pay for my lodging, I’m out here in the cold.”  

But not everyone comes in out of the cold. Some people choose not to go to shelters because of the rules. (At some shelters, a uniformed security guard with a magnetometer wand inspects everyone who enters.) For some, the atmosphere of authority in shelters is more than they can bear. “That little bit of control… They’d rather not give that up,” said Simmons.  

One homeless man in a downtown park on a recent evening said that he prefers to sleep in his tent rather than go to a shelter. The tent, which he said he has coated with an insulating compound, keeps him warm enough. Moreover, dealing the rules and cramped quarters in a shelter can be more annoying than toughing out the cold on your own, said the man, who declined to give him his name.  

Those who choose to stay on the streets often inspire others to stay on the streets, according to Simmons. So choosing to leave the streets for a shelter means leaving behind friends and family who prefer not to go to a shelter. And for some, leaving a buddy is not an option.  

“There’s a very strong social glue out here,” Simmons said. 

That social glue can be seen among the homeless people gathered near warm Metro station entrances and at parks on cold evenings. It also can be seen near steam grates on the city’s sidewalks. 

The grates are like oases, but the steam can be a hazard. The steam vents provide warmth, but they also coat their tenants in mist. Moving away from the vents on a frosty night can be like stepping out a hot shower directly into the cold.  

“You’re warm but you’re wet. You can’t leave,” said Simmons, who explained that using tarps has helped some block the moisture without blocking the warmth.  

For many homeless people on the streets during cold nights, their blankets and whatever clothes they have serve as their only shields. And blankets can be a hot commodity. Simmons said he sometimes has to “interview” people to make sure they genuinely need the blankets they are asking for.  

In the end, though, the blankets and the shelters and the tricks for staying warm are just small pieces of the hypothermia solution. Taking the time to check in with people is the big thing, according to Simmons. “Time’s the most important thing you can give to somebody,” he said.