Images distributed by the DC Homeland Security & Emergency Management on June 30.

The D.C. government activated its Heat Emergency Plan this week as the heat index reached as high as 105 degrees in some parts of Washington between June 27 and 30. Despite publicly advertised cooling sites, general knowledge of which locations were open to offer relief is limited. 

Heat emergencies in the District are automatically declared by the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA) whenever the National Weather Service forecasts a local temperature above 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Upon declaration, HSEMA coordinates with the District’s Department of Human Services in order to operate 37 “facilities that allow individuals to gain respite from the heat during regular business hours” around the city, including outdoor spray parks and air-conditioned public libraries. Residents may find nearby cooling centers using the city’s interactive map.

During the heat emergency, when reaching out to all of the cooling centers listed in the plan, Street Sense Media received confirmation from only 19 sites that they were aware of the emergency declaration and operating as cooling centers. Eight of the sites denied that they were cooling centers when asked, while 10 sites were unsure of their status, closed, or otherwise unable to be reached. 

[Read more: When conducting a similar audit of the heat plan in 2016, Street Sense Media identified numerous discrepancies]

Seven low-barrier shelters are also included in HSEMA’s Heat Emergency Plan, separate from the cooling centers. They are listed as operating 24 hours a day for “all individuals staying in the facility.”  But it is unclear whether someone newly seeking shelter could come in mid-day. When called by Street Sense Media reporters, five shelters stated that intake started at 4 p.m. 

Regardless of the heat emergency, D.C.’s low-barrier shelters have been open 24/7 since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Residents can stay throughout the day, according to Department of Human Services spokesperson Lauren Kinard. However, if residents decide to leave, shelter capacity changes and their space may be filled. 

In its communications about the heat emergency, multiple D.C. agencies noted that residents should call the shelter hotline (202-399-7093) or 311 for free transportation to a cooling station or shelter. However, when Street Sense Media called the hotline, the operator said that transportation to shelters and cooling centers would begin at 6 p.m. Until then, the hotline would let callers know of the nearest shelters that have space. After 6 p.m., callers would be asked to describe their location and what they were wearing. Transportation would then be provided once the person was screened for COVID-19 symptoms, according to the hotline operator.

@DCHumanServ: "☀️🌡The District’s Heat Emergency is activated for June 27-30, 2021. 👀If you see some one outside in need of assistance: ☎️ call the Shelter Hotline at 202-399-7093 or 311 for free transpo to a cooling station or shelter; or, call 911 if there is an imminent threat to safety."

Screenshot taken July 1

Colleen Cosgriff, a lead outreach team member for nonprofit Pathways to Housing D.C., described how the city’s cooling center system, while beneficial, can be less effective in practice than it appears to be on paper.

“We’re grateful that they provide a place people can go to get out of the heat, but there are some challenges with the cooling centers, especially for people who are living outdoors,” Cosgriff said. “If you have someone who has a tent or other items, they might not feel comfortable going somewhere unknown or out of eyesight of their belongings — so it’s not a solution for everybody, unfortunately.”

Unhoused residents in particular are vulnerable to extreme heat conditions. According to a recent District survey, one in four unhoused residents has a chronic physical health condition and 37.8% are over the age of 55, making them more susceptible to heat stroke and exhaustion. Roughly half of residents experiencing homelessness also have a mental health condition, meaning heat-induced irritability or confusion could have an outsized effect on their wellbeing. 

“They’re at risk of heat stroke and sunburn all day — and dehydration, which can be serious,” Cosgriff said. “If they’re worried about losing belongings they might have all their clothing on or with them. So it’s definitely difficult, especially downtown where there are no trees and the pavement gets quite hot. That’s where people sleep so it can be quite distressing and dangerous.”

[Read more: DC is one of the most intense summer “heat islands” of any US city]

This week’s heat emergency coincides with shelters around the District reaching their upper capacity. On June 25, the Patricia Handy Legacy site had 118 men, its maximum capacity, in residence throughout the night. The same night, the New York Avenue Shelter reached its capacity, serving 200 men. Adam’s Place Shelter exceeded its capacity by serving 116 men, one more person than its maximum bed availability. The same three shelters remained at capacity the following night. 

Unhoused residents also have less reliable access to drinking water. And medical conditions such as diabetes can be exacerbated by the heat. “We’re trying to help as many people as we can through 100-degree heat because it takes a serious toll on peoples’ bodies,” Cosgriff added.

Out of nine local residents who spoke with Street Sense Media reporters, three were unaware of the cooling centers, and six knew the sites were available. None of the residents said they had gone to a cooling center at any time recently.

Robert Thames lived in McPherson square for four days following maintenance on his apartment complex when plumbing broke. According to Thames, he was given alternative housing for two days but has not been able to return home the last four days after pipes in his bathroom broke. 

“The heat is crazy. I drink a lot of water and try to stay in the shade. There’s a church that feeds the homeless and so I get water from them. I drink five or six of the 12-ounce cups,” Thames said. “I take medication, you see. I have schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression. I have to drink a lot of water.” 

Gary Wolf, who said he was homeless for 24 years before getting his own place through Pathways to Housing D.C., said he has heard about the cooling centers but is fortunate to now have air conditioning for cooling at home. He said individuals experiencing homelessness can risk encountering health issues if they don’t hydrate when temperatures are high and people are unaware of ways to cool off.

“You can die out here without hydration,” he said. “I know. I did it for 24 years. You get used to it.”

[Read more: Excessive heat is especially dangerous for people experiencing homelessness]

Queenie Featherstone, a Street Sense Media vendor, said temperatures that creep up past 100 degrees during the summer intensify the need to connect individuals experiencing homelessness with permanent housing. She questions how much longer it will take to make housing services more accessible for residents withstanding the unfavorable living conditions. 

Residents endured the hottest day of the year in most areas of the District Wednesday, with temperatures reaching a high of 95 and feeling like 10 degrees more than that at the height of the week’s heatwave. A report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in May shows that the hottest days in D.C. will have an average high temperature of 90 degrees as part of new climate “normals.” The District used to log peak summer temperatures of 89 degrees for 16 straight days before 2010, but the report suggests the city could spend 45 days each year under the same conditions in the near future.

“It aches my heart just to know that people sleep in the street in whatever type of whatever condition there is,” Featherstone said. “Of course this is the summer season. Temperatures start at 7, 8 o’clock in the morning at 90 degrees sometimes, so to have to live like this, it does hurt.”

Queenie Featherstone contributed reporting.


Every facility contacted:

Use the tabs at the bottom to switch between cooling centers and shelters. Scroll to the right for address, hours, and contact information.