City Desk

D.C.’s Overwhelmed Hypothermia Workers Didn’t Pick up This Homeless Woman, So She Sheltered in a Grocery Store

A hopeless woman sits on Rafael Grocery Deli as she waits to be taken to a shelter.

A homeless woman sits in Rafael Grocery Deli as she waits to be taken to a shelter.

On Monday evening, when temperatures in D.C. dipped to just 10 degrees, Kidan Habtmicael saw a homeless woman lying outside on the sidewalk near Rafael Grocery Deli, the store she runs on Florida Avenue NW.

Habtmicael called an ambulance around 5:30 p.m., but when the medics arrived, she says, they only gave the woman a blanket and said they couldn't force anyone to go to the hospital. So Habtmicael called the city contractor-run hypothermia hotline she had seen notices about, waited on hold for a few minutes, and was eventually told by an operator that they were busy, but someone would pick up the woman and take her to a shelter. According to Habtmicael, no one came.

Habtmicael brought the woman, who she says did not identify herself but said she was 48, into her small, bulletproof-glass-encased store and made for her a Cup Noodles and a hot chocolate. Habtmicael and a woman who lives next door to the store each called the hotline two more times over the next few hours, but no one came to pick up the homeless woman. Close to 11:30 p.m, Habtmicael called again for someone to pick the woman up. She told the hotline operator that she wanted to close up her shop and go home.

Habtmicael said she was curtly told to leave the woman outside and someone would pick her up. But Habtmicael said it was too cold for that, so she called an ambulance, which arrived around 11:30 and took the woman to the hospital.

"You had to feel for her," says Habtmicael. "As cold as it was, nobody should have been outside."

With temperatures hitting record lows this week, the hypothermia hotline, which is run by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, was overwhelmed Monday night. Michele Williams, chief of systems integration at Community Partnership, says she can't speak to Habtmicael's situation specifically, but that her organization had four people working the hotline's 10 lines Monday night and received 412 calls between 4 p.m. and midnight.

On Monday evening, Twitter users reported getting busy signals when they called the hotline;  in response, the Community Partnership added five additional lines and two more people to man them. They also created a Twitter handle, @DChypothermia, through which they shared their email address, uposh@upo.org, as a means for the community to report people in need of shelter. The Community Partnership typically oversees nine vans making rounds throughout the city on a given night, and on Tuesday the organization temporarily added an additional five vans, on loan from the D.C. Department of Aging, to its fleet.

According to Williams, the hotline received 215 calls Tuesday night, and at no point were more than six lines in use at a given time. The vans picked up 104 people based on call-ins, and including their normal rounds, they took a total of 247 people to shelters last night.

"We did experience a bit of a challenge on Monday night, mostly because there was a high volume of citizen calls. It's an unusual occurrence having that high volume of calls," Williams says. "We feel like we did a great job on both nights, there were challenges with the lines, but we were able to get a lot of people off the streets and into shelters."

As for tonight, Williams says it hasn't been determined whether the Community Partnership will dispatch extra trucks or bring on additional people to work the phones.

Photo by Kidan Habtmicael

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  • Taxi

    So, based on the distance between this store and the shelter, it was anywhere from a 6-8 dollar cab ride, yet none of these people who were apparently so put out by having to wait hours upon hours during the most severe cold in the cities history, thought to call her a cab and pay the 6-8 dollar fare?

    No, they instead called the ambulance twice, and cost the DC taxpayer $850 each time ($1,700) to give her a ride.

    Then again, thats the mindset of the demographic...why spend 6-8 dollars rather than cost everyone else $1,700 for the same result.

  • mis

    @Taxi, I'm not sure your argument makes sense. The Taxes that would cover this situation are already paid and earmarked. Requesting that the ambulance come and pick this unfortunate woman up did nothing to cost the taxpayer additional money. The more concerning thing is that the Community Partnership did not seem to have any way of tracking whether requests for help were actually responded to.

  • maktoo

    You're assuming a cabbie would pick up a homeless woman?

    Also, on Monday night, there weren't a lot of cabs around - I know, because I was trying to flag one down. I was disgusted that two just passed me by, and *I* was well-dressed at the time AND waving frantically.

    And if the ride was paid ahead of time, who's to say that the cabbie wouldn't chuck the poor woman out a block away and keep the cash? Sorry, but I don't trust cab drivers that much.

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