The D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA) declared the first significant heat alert of 2016 on Wednesday, July 6 when the heat index reached 97 degrees. HSEMA activated their Heat Emergency Plan, which includes the locations of several cooling centers where people may go to stay out of the heat.

A similar emergency was declared on July 7 and July 8, with temperatures forecasted to remain above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

General cooling centers, as well as those specifically catering to people experiencing homelessness, are listed in the Heat Emergency Plan. However, there were several errors in the contact information for those sites, and some shelter staff were uncertain what it meant to act as a cooling center.


For some people waiting for beds at shelters that double as cooling centers, the Heat Emergency Plan had little effect in practice. Loretta and Sharika waited through most of Wednesday afternoon outside the N Street Village Patricia Handy Place for Women, hoping a bed would become available for that night.

The heat index was near 97 degrees and The Patricia Handy Place for Women is the first cooling center for the homeless listed in the Heat Emergency Plan. Neither Loretta nor Sharika knew what a cooling center was, nor that it was a service they could seek.

Since Wednesday, the Department of Human Services has been in contact with the shelters doubling as cooling centers to clarify their understanding of the role as a cooling center during a heat emergency alert, according to D.C. Department of Human Services Public Information Officer Dora Taylor.

Benjamin Burgess

Loretta and Sharika. | Photo by Benjamin Burgess

Heat alerts are activated when the heat index, the perceived combination of temperature and humidity, exceeds 95 degrees. Any member of the public may take shelter in a listed cooling center during a heat emergency alert until 6:00 p.m., unless an earlier closing hour is noted in the Heat Emergency Plan.

If a person is not of the gender normally permitted at the shelter, they may wait inside the cooling center, and the staff will contact a United Planning Organization shuttle to transport the person to an appropriate shelter, according to Taylor and Ramsey Brown, DHS Interim Chief of Emergency Management.

During a heat emergency, UPO shuttles are available to provide water and transportation to cooling centers via the hyperthermia hotline: 1-800-535-7252. When not answering a call, the shuttles canvas areas of the city for people suffering from heat-related stress.

The lobby of the Frank D. Reeves Center and One Judiciary Square are two general cooling centers that have confirmed with Street Sense that they are open to the public during heat alerts, until 5:00 p.m.

The staff at Adam’s Place Emergency Shelter and 801 East Men’s Shelter also confirmed they are open to homeless men and women who need to escape the heat during an HSEMA alert, until intake begins for that evening.

During heat alerts, HSEMA notifies each District government agency and partly relies on them to disseminate the plan, according to HSEMA Chief of Staff Brian Barker. In this way, Metropolitan Police Department officers are alert to people potentially suffering from heat-related conditions.

The emergency alert notification is also sent out through Alert DC, which individuals can subscribe to with a cell phone number or e-mail address.

Extreme heat can exacerbate conditions such as multiple sclerosis and can lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. People who cannot seek shelter are much more vulnerable to these risks. According to the Physicians for Social Responsibility, long-lasting bouts of heat also exacerbate stress and symptoms of mental illness.

“This is a serious concern to us,” Barker said, discussing the risk of hyperthermia in an interview. “We want to make sure that the health and safety of every resident is addressed.”

Jacqueline Groskaufmanis contributed to this report.


Important Heat Emergency contact information provided by HSEMA: 

  • Hyperthermia hotline for the homeless and persons at risk: 1 (800) 535-7252
  • Senior resources, cooling centers and information: (202) 724-5626
  • Location of public cooling centers: (202) 727-6161
  • Seniors needing energy cost assistance: 311

The contact information for the aforementioned cooling centers: 

  • Frank D. Reeves Center | 2000 14th St NW | 202-671-0576
  • One Judiciary Square | 441 4th St NW | 202-724-8613
  • Adam’s Place Emergency Shelter | 2210 Adam’s Place NE | 202-399-7093
  • 801 East Men’s Shelter | 2700 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE | 202- 561-4014

Annotated Updates for July 6 Edition of the 2016 Heat Emergency Plan from Street Sense