A photo of the outside of Patricia Handy Place for Women.
credit: Reginald Black

As hypothermia season ends — Nov. 1 through March 31 —  the city will begin to reduce its winter shelter capacity. Women’s issues are an underrepresented concern among homeless advocates. According to reports that the Shelter Capacity Monitoring Work Group for the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness has been working, there are 218 beds for single women throughout the homeless services system year-round. For context, a 2016 snapshot of the District’s homeless community found 3,673 single adults sleeping outside, in hypothermia season beds, in emergency shelter or in transitional housing. Yet shelter capacity for women is only a problem on nights when the temperature does not reach below 32 degrees or above 95 degrees.

A brand new women’s shelter was opened in May 2016, however two other women’s shelters were closed and the beds moved. John L. Young Women’s Shelter had 85 year-round beds for women and Open Door Shelter had 108 year-round beds for women for a total of 193. The Patricia Handy Place for Women provides 98 low-barrier beds for women, as well as 14 others split between medical respite and transitional shelter designations.

If a hypothermia or hyperthermia alert is not called, the city does not have extra beds nor transportation, which may leave some women in precarious situations. For example, in February 2017, 78 women were turned away from Patricia Handy and only 25 of them received transportation to an alternate facility, according to the Monthly Turnaway Totals tracked by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. The new facility averaged three turnaways per night in February, down from the previous month but a consistent issue since the shelter’s opening.

“It took me three days to get in here. I was living in Laurel, Maryland and my funds ran out in August of 2016,” said Janice, an elderly  shelter resident who relies on a walker. “I went to Bread for the City, they gave me a letter [and] I came over early and gave them the letter. They said ‘we don’t do it like that.’ That night I was turned away.”

This was Janice’s first time going there to seek shelter for shelter and there was no guidance from staff on how to obtain emergency shelter for a single woman.

“I came back the next day and I didn’t get in. One night a college girl got in late and they gave her my bed,” Janice said.

She described attempting to obtain shelter at another location. “A policeman told me to walk up to that Emery [Rec Center] thing, but it was closed,” she said. “So I walked back down to the police station. They tell some of the women to go to Union Station or sit at the bus stop and act like you are waiting for a ride somewhere.”

City low-barrier shelters operate with limited capacity and limited 7 p.m. – 7 a.m. hours except when legally bound to shelter people from extreme temperatures. However, Janice noted that the shelter stayed open for three days straight during President Trump’s inauguration. “They even fed us,” she said.

Another woman who had been turned away from the same shelter said, “I think that we should provide a bed for everyone.” She spoke under the condition of anonymity because she is homeless due to a violent relationship.

Several women who have been turned away from one particular shelter sleep right in front of  it. Activist Eric Sheptock said that he was asked to leave by shelter security on March 30 while trying to investigate if anyone was being turned away on non-hypothermia alert nights. He described letting one woman in a wheelchair who was just turned away, Ms. Patricia, use his cell phone in front of the shelter when a security guard said that Sheptock would have to leave. A shelter resident had complained that there were men outside. Sheptock told the guard he couldn’t leave until Ms. Patricia was finished using his phone and the guard told him she would let the police talk to him.

Women are already resorting to sleeping outdoors and rely on dangerous temperatures for access to safe shelter.

The Department of Human Services is aware of the capacity issue and has been working hard to find appropriate space to add additional beds, according to Kate Coventry, a policy analyst from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and appointed voting member of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness. There will be 20 to 25 more nonseasonal low-barrier shelter beds available for single women by April 10, according to Coventry. The beds will all be added to one shelter that is already connected to the shelter transport van system.

UPDATE (04.11.2017): As of April 10, 30 new women’s emergency shelter beds were added at the Adam’s Place Day Center. Seven women utilized the beds the first night.